Revisiting Mississippi – 60 years after the Klan murder of Civil Rights workers

In 1964 I quit my job as cub reporter for the Detroit News and left for Mississippi to cover Freedom Summer, headed by courageous youth of the Civil Rights movement and the approximately 1,000 volunteers who followed them there.

One of my first nights in Mississippi was at the home of a Black farmer who owned his own land. Near the front door was a small arsenal of shotguns and rifles to protect against possible trouble from night riders.

In 2024, I returned to the scene of the Ku Klux Klan killings of Mississippi organizer James Chaney and volunteers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both New Yorkers, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964 — a crime that shocked the country, followed by the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965, 

This spring I spoke for three hours with Black community leader Leroy Clemons, who has organized the Neshoba County Youth Coalition, comprised of Black, white and Choctaw members, to fight for reconciliation and civil rights in Mississippi. He filled me in on some changes that have taken place since 1964, when most Philadelphia law officers were Klan members: “Back then no one wanted to talk about the killings, or the frequent burnings of Black and Native churches.” Today the town has a Black majority, Black police: and a Black mayor.  

Back in the summer of ’64, despite widespread speculation that the three Civil Rights workers had been victims of the Klan, no bodies had turned up. So on July 17, Civil Rights volunteer Ruth Schein and myself showed up at the Philadelphia public library to learn more about Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, both reputed to be Klan members.

After a few hours of research, I left the library to get my car, but was accosted by a mob of five men who were suspicious of out-of-town reporters and started hitting me on the head and face with chains. After a while Deputy Price showed up, and in the confusion I was able to escape, retrieve my car, pick up Ruth from the library and leave town. 

On Aug. 4, the bodies of the three Civil Rights workers were found buried in an earthen dam. Later, 18 men stood trial for the murders, most of them Klansmen. Deputy Price and seven others were convicted of violating the civil rights of the victims by killing them. Each served a term in prison of several years. 

In 2004, Klan leader Edgar Killen was convicted of planning the killings and served a longer sentence, dying in prison.

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was running for President, he stopped at the annual Neshoba County Fair to give a speech on “state’s rights,” in what was widely regarded as a “wolf whistle,” to broadcast his sympathies with white supremacists who opposed the Civil Rights movement in 1964.

References: We Will Shoot Back: Armed resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, by Akinyele Umoja; The Summer that Didn’t End, by Len Holt; Witness in Philadelphia, by Florence Mars.

Dave Welsh

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Dave Welsh

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