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Coalition seeks to reopen case of civil-rights workers

By Heather Cottin

A multinational coalition wants the state of Mississippi to prosecute those responsible for the deaths of civil-rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were killed 40 years ago in Philadelphia, Miss.

The three were part of the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to desegregate Mississippi and organize Black voter registration. The campaign was organized by the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

That summer, homes of 37 African American families and 37 churches with Black congregations were firebombed. These acts of racist terror were actively encouraged by the state apparatus which was entwined with the extra-legal violence of the Klan.

On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, an African American civil-rights activist, and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white activists, traveled to Longdale, Miss., to investigate a church bombing. The Ku Klux Klan was reportedly strong there. As the three later drove back through Neshoba County to Meridian, Philadelphia police stopped and detained them.

The three civil-rights workers were never seen alive again. On Aug. 4 their bodies were found, buried in a dam.

The movie "Mississippi Burning" is based on these deaths, which stunned the country and the world. Although the murders took place before the summer project had begun, more than 70,000 students from all over the United States came to Mississippi for Freedom Summer.

Reopen the case!

Seven members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted of federal civil-rights violations and sentenced to terms ranging from three to 10 years. The state never brought murder charges. All were paroled before serving their full sentences.

Now, in late May, 40 years later, the new coalition gathered at City Hall in Philadelphia, Miss., in infamous Neshoba County, to seek justice.

Their resolution states, "Local and state law enforcement officers were involved in the planning and execution of these murders." The group criticized the "shameful involvement and interference of state government, including actions of the State Sovereignty Commission, in thwarting justice in this case." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 26)

The infamous "Sovereignty Com mission" was formed in 1956 to represent the interests of the landowners and business class. Its aim was to preserve Jim Crow segregation and to keep civil-rights activities at bay. The "commission" disseminated information about civil-rights activists to local law-enforcement agencies. One such piece of information was the license plate number of civil-rights workers' car the night they disappeared. (History News Network,

Ben Chaney, who was 12 when his brother James Chaney was killed, is currently traveling on a 20-bus caravan to publicize the need to reopen the case, and to engage in voter registration in the South. The cortege embarked on a 20-stop tour beginning in New York City on June 9. It is scheduled to end in Philadelphia, Miss., for a memorial service for the three martyrs.

"The need for truth is there," Ben Chaney said. "To continually push for the trial to take place in Mississippi is a way of confronting racism and the Klan." (

Infamous history of racism

"Mississippi is infamous, with the worst reputation for civil injustices and racial violence against African Americans," concludes Jackson State University's Dr. Monique Guillory

Mamie Till-Mobley worked until her January 2003 death at age 81 to demand a new investigation into the 1955 murder of her son Emmett Till in Neshoba County. The Black teenager was lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman. Now the long struggle has finally forced the Justice Department to reopen the investigation.

The Rev. Walter Edward Fauntroy, former congressional delegate from Washington, D.C., noted after Ronald Reagan's death that at Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's urging, "Ronald Reagan's first speech in his presidential campaign was given in Philadelphia, Miss.--where they had beaten Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman to death ... and the purpose was to let [the Black community] know [the Klan was] going to turn the clock back."

President George W. Bush recently appointed Mississippi Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr., who reportedly had ties to the "Sovereignty Commission," to the U.S. Southern District's Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Reprinted from the June 24, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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