Three Civil Rights Workers

Today’s blog was written by Damon Turner, summer intern at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland and doctoral student at Morgan State University

Freedom Summer or the Mississippi Summer Project was a time of great intrigue and courage.  Black and White Americans who witnessed the horrors of Jim Crow, attempted to change America for the better.  Freedom Summer is primarily recognized by three key events: the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP); the establishment of Freedom Schools along with the registration of Black voters; and the brutal murder of three civil rights workers.

Missing Civil Rights Workers
Missing Civil Rights Workers [public domain]
On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers investigated the burning of a Black church, where a civil rights rally took place days earlier.  James Chaney, 21 year-old Black Mississippi college student, and two White New Yorkers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Andrew Goodman, age 20 and Michael Schwerner, age 24 were arrested and placed in jail for “speeding” by the local police.  The men were released after dark into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.  In RG 65 the Classification 157 (Civil Unrest) Case Files, 1957-1978 (National Archives Identifier 1513558) series, there are files regarding the attempts of CORE and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register Black voters. Several of the cases in this series were opened by the FBI to investigate Ku Klux Klan and other hate organizations activity.  These records must be screened prior to public use.

After local and state authorities failed to locate the men, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy stepped in, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to take over the case.  Kennedy ordered an investigation under the Lindbergh Law [Federal Kidnapping Act (1948)] to look for the three civil rights workers.  The investigation was given the code name MIBURN or Mississippi Burning.  Ironically, this incident provided the final impetus for President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In the mist of searching for the three workers, the FBI discovered the bodies of other missing civil rights activists.  Two of the recovered bodies were of Henry Dee and Charles Moore.  Many of the DOJ’s investigations into civil rights violations are detailed in RG 60 Class 144 (Civil Rights) Litigation Case Files, 1936-1997  (National Archives Identifier 603432) series.  The case file number for the three missing civil rights workers is 144-41-686.  These records must be screened prior to public use.

[public domain]
It was not until the FBI offered a $30,000 reward before an anonymous source provided details and information concerning the whereabouts of the civil rights workers.  On August 4, 1964, the three men were found near Old Jolly Farm in Neshoba County, Mississippi.  Goodman and Schwerner were both shot in the head with a single bullet, while Chaney suffered two broken arms, trauma to the groin area, a broken jaw, and a crush right shoulder.  The Press Releases, Speeches, Testimonies, and other Records, 1933-1984 (National Archives Identifer 5605357) series contains the Department of Justice’s press release on August 4, 1964, announcing the discovery of the bodies of the three young men.

The FBI arrested twenty-one local police officers and Klansmen for the crime.  But, state officials refused to prosecute them for kidnapping and murder.  Instead, the Federal Government charged seven out of the twenty-one Mississippians for the crime of violating the civil rights of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.  It was not until 2005, when eighty year-old former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was indicted and convicted of manslaughter for masterminding the murder of the three civil rights workers.  He was sentenced to sixty years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.  The RG 21 US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi (Meridian) records are held at the National Archives at Atlanta, Georgia.  Included in this series is USA v. Cecil Ray Price, et al (1967) Case No. 5291, which details the charges against eighteen Klansmen in the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney.

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