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Mississippi Burning 50 Years Later

Fifty years may seem like a long time ago to an individual, but in the history of a nation, the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney in Neshoba County, Mississippi, are still shockingly recent. The three activists from the Congress of Racial Equality volunteered to travel to Mississippi to investigate a church burning. They arrived on June 20, 1964. They were arrested for speeding on June 21st. They were released late that night, and were never seen alive again. The three bodies were not found until August 4th. All were shot, and Chaney, who was black, had also been badly beaten.  

During the six-week search, the bodies of nine black men had been dredged out of local swamps. Though numerous African-Americans had been missing and presumed dead with little media attention in Mississippi during that time, the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney rocked the nation.

Said David Goodman, who was 17 years old when his brother was killed: "It took two white kids to legitimize the tragedy of being murdered if you wanted to vote."

It took four decades - and a determined reporter - to achieve a measure of justice in the case.

In 1964, the Justice Department, then led by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, knew they were up against segregationist authorities who would never charge the alleged attackers as well as all-white juries who would refuse to convict the suspects of murder. So the feds prosecuted the case under an 1870 post-reconstruction civil rights law. Seven of the 18 men arrested - including the Neshoba County deputy sheriff who tipped off the KKK to the men's whereabouts - were convicted of civil rights violations, but not murder. None served more than six years in prison. Three Klansmen, including Edgar Ray Killen, were acquitted because of jury deadlock.

(Image courtesy of David Goodman)

One man, Ray Killen, was eventually convicted of murder in the case -in 2005. Read an overview of the story at CBS, and find more links at Metafilter.


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