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The Freedom Summer Killings

BY Carl Ballard  April 18, 2002 at 10:43 AM EDT

But on June 21, 1964, all three men were murdered there, and nearly 40 years later, the quest to bring their killers to justice is still not over.

During the summer of 1964, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman volunteered for Freedom Summer, a voter registration drive coordinated by various civil rights groups to improve the rights of African-Americans in Mississippi.

On June 21, 1964, Neshoba County Deputy Cecil Price stopped the trio on traffic charges while they were driving to Meridian, Mississippi.

They were jailed briefly and then released. But as they drove away, as many as 22 members of the Ku Klux Klan stopped the car, gunned down all three and buried their bodies beneath a 15-foot earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their bodies were discovered 44 days later, on August 4, after an informant tipped off the FBI.

Charges of conspiracy and civil rights violations
The FBI arrested 18 men on October 13. However, state prosecutors would not take the case, citing lack of evidence, leaving federal authorities to intercede with charges of federal conspiracy and violations of the victims’ civil rights.

Alleged Klansmen James Jordan and Horace Doyle Barnette pleaded guilty to the killings and gave confessions implicating others. However, Jordan and Barnette’s confessions were never heard at trial. In the confessions, both men named Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen as the main instigator. They also named Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey as being involved.

Samuel Bowers, then the Imperial Wizard of Mississippi’s Ku Klux Klan, was found guilty when testimony identified him as giving the order to kill Schwerner. Juries convicted a total of seven men on federal conspiracy charges; seven others were acquitted and three had mistrials. The longest sentence imposed was six years. It was also determined that the civil rights workers were killed as result of a conspiracy between members of Neshoba County’s law enforcement and the KKK.

Secret tapes and confessions
In the confessions, alleged Klansmen Jordan and Barnette discussed the circumstances in which the killings were planned. Barnette also said that Killen told him, “We have a place to bury them, and a man to run the dozer to cover them up.” According to Barnett, “This was the first time I realized the three civil rights workers were to be killed.”

Killen, whose alibi for the night of the murders was that he was preaching at two funerals, was tried but the jury could not reach a verdict. Rainey, the Neshoba County Sheriff, was acquitted.

In 1983, in a secret interview with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Bowers also alleged that Killen was the main perpetrator of the 1964 murders. Bowers also admitted he thwarted justice in the case.

As part of an agreement with state archivists, Bowers’ tapes are to remain sealed until his death. The Clarion-Ledger’s Jerry Mitchell gained access to portions of the tapes in 1998, however, and the paper published excerpts.

In the tapes, Bowers denies direct involvement in the killings, but says if authorities “had wanted to put a charge on me they could have gotten me for obstruction of justice.” Bowers said he did “everything I could to frustrate the investigation…I was up there doing everything I could to keep those people from talking and everything else.”

“I was quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man,” said Bowers. “Everybody, including the trial judge and the prosecutors and everybody else, knows that that happened.”

Bowers was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for the 1966 murder of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer.

Responding to Bowers’ allegations, Killen told reporters at The Clarion-Ledger that he was never in the Klan and had nothing to do with the killings.

Lawrence Rainey echoed Killen’s remarks, saying that Barnette’s confession was false.

“The damn FBI was paying all the witnesses to lie. I attended some of the Klan meetings. They had open meetings, but that was all,” Rainey told The Clarion-Ledger.

Seeking justice 36 years later
Bowers’ admission to “obstructing justice” led Rita Schwerner-Bender, Schwerner’s widow, to write Philadelphia, Mississippi District Attorney Ken Taylor.

“It is past time for the state of Mississippi to fully investigate and acknowledge responsibility for these murders,” she said in the letter asking Taylor to reopen the case.

Ben Chaney, brother of victim James Earl Chaney, told The Clarion-Ledger, “There are many, many who are alive who should stand trial. Mississippi has never prosecuted anyone for murder in the killings.”

In 2000, Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore announced the state was asking the FBI to turn over its files on the case and the 1967 trial transcripts. Moore said it was his intention to reopen the case and prosecute those responsible for the 1964 murders.

“It’s a chance for us to do justice for the families of those three young men,” Moore said. “It’s a mean-spirited murder case, maybe one of the most mean-spirited murder cases that I’ve ever seen. Our investigators are now out in the field interviewing witnesses.”

The 1967 trial transcript could play a valuable role in bringing the case back to court. Under Mississippi rules of evidence, sworn testimony of deceased witnesses is admissible as long as cross-examination took place.

Andrew Goodman’s mother, Carolyn, in response the state’s action said she’s glad her son hadn’t been forgotten. “At least I know they’re working on it,” she said.