By Marian Wright Edelman and Julia Cass
Special to the NNPA
There is a photograph of a back road near Philadelphia, Miss. that was the final stop on our step-by-step journey through the final tragic day of Freedom Summer volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Our guide was Leroy Clemons, a longtime local leader and activist whose family was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Neshoba County and who is prominently featured in the excellent documentary “Neshoba: The Price of Freedom.”
We both took this journey on June 25 with a group of about 400 young people, including young women participating in the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s summer leadership institute for young Black women. Other young people who were in Jackson, Mississippi for the 50th anniversary commemoration of Freedom Summer joined our group too, as did Freedom Summer organizer and leader Dave Dennis; James Chaney’s sister, Julia Chaney Moss, now a minister in Willingboro, N.J.; and Walt MacDonald and Michael Nettles from Educational Testing Service.
Our buses were escorted by state troopers. For a split second, that almost seemed like an honor until we quickly wondered why we needed a police escort. The site is just down the road from the families of two of the Ku Klux Klan members involved in the murders, and as the buses stopped to see the murder site, riders on some of them said that pickup trucks rode by, back and forth, in a presumed effort at intimidation.
Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were stopped and arrested by Klan member and deputy sheriff Cecil Price as they drove away after speaking with members of a Black church that had been torched a few days earlier. The rebuilt church was our first stop in recreating their day.
The deputy, Cecil Price, and the Klan knew that civil rights workers had been at the church several times to talk about having a Freedom School there—especially Michael Schwerner, who had been working in the area for some time, and they were looking for him. Chaney, the driver, was charged with “speeding” while Goodman and Schwerner were booked for investigation, and all three were taken to the former jail—a squat non-descript building that was our second stop. After the Klan had time to gather, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were released around 10 p.m. and told to drive back to Meridian, where they were staying.
About 20 Klansmen, drunk and full of “blood lust,” chained James Chaney to a tree and beat him with chains. When they unchained him, he fell to the ground, and then they castrated him as Goodman and Schwerner watched. Then, they shot him. Schwerner came up and cradled Chaney in his arms. A Klansman asked, “Are you that nigger lover?” and he said, “Sir, I understand your concern.” And they shot him in the heart. Andrew Goodman ran and they shot him, too.
They then took the bodies to a dam a little further down the road (private property so we couldn’t go there) where a tractor had already been deployed to dig the graves. Evidence suggests Andrew Goodman was buried alive. The next day, Edgar Ray Killen took all the weapons and bullet casings to the Meridian Police Department, which destroyed them.
In 1967, in a case brought by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, seven Klansmen were convicted by a jury of Mississippi citizens in federal court of conspiracy to violate Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s federally protected civil rights. Eight others were acquitted and the jury was undecided on two more. None served more than six years in prison. A half-century later nobody has ever been convicted of their murder.
We must make sure that our children and all of us know our history and that the atrocities that wiped out the lives of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner and countless others who died for freedom and justice during the Civil Rights Movement—including eight other Black men whose bodies were only found as the FBI dredged Mississippi rivers and swamps searching for these three young men—do not ever happen again.
It is way past time for all adults to step up to the plate and make sure that the backwards slide for poor children is stopped and light a fire under ourselves to combat with all our might the continuing discrimination, dehumanization, and lack of public support and concern for children and youths of color and poor children in America.
Julia Cass is a Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.