The Murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman & Michael Schwerner Civil Rights Case
The ringleader of the murders, Edgar Ray Killen, was convicted on June 21, 2005, the 41st anniversary of the crimes
by Borgna Brunner
On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers—a 21-year-old black Mississippian, James Chaney, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24—were murdered near Philadelphia, in Nashoba County, Mississippi. They had been working to register black voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer and had gone to investigate the burning of a black church. They were arrested by the police on trumped-up charges, imprisoned for several hours, and then released after dark into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, who beat and murdered them. It was later proven in court that a conspiracy existed between members of Neshoba County's law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan to kill them.
The FBI arrested 18 men in October 1964, but state prosecutors refused to try the case, claiming lack of evidence. The federal government then stepped in, and the FBI arrested 18 in connection with the killings. In 1967, seven men were convicted on federal conspiracy charges and given sentences of three to ten years, but none served more than six. No one was tried on the charge or murder. The contemptible words of the presiding federal judge, William Cox, give an indication of Mississippi's version of justice at the time: "They killed one ni---r, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved." Another eight defendants were acquitted by their all-white juries, and another three ended in mistrials. One of those mistrials freed Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen—believed to be the ringleader—after the jury in his case was deadlocked by one member who said she couldn't bear to convict a preacher.
On Jan. 7, 2005, four decades after the crime, Edgar Ray Killen, then 80, was charged with three counts of murder. He was accused of orchestrating the killings and assembling the mob that killed the three men. On June 21—the 41st anniversary of the murders—Killen was convicted on three counts of manslaughter, a lesser charge. He received the maximum sentence, 60 years in prison. The grand jury declined to call for the arrest of the seven other living members of the original group of 18 suspects arrested in 1967.
A major reason the case was reopened was a 1999 interview with Sam Bowers, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard convicted in 1967 of giving the order to have Michael Schwerner killed. Bowers remarked in the interview that took place more than 30 years after the crime, "I was quite delighted to be convicted and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man. Everybody, including the trial judge and the prosecutors and everybody else, knows that that happened." Bowers claims that Killen was a central figure in the murders and organized the KKK mob that carried them out. (Bowers is currently serving a life sentence for ordering a 1966 firebombing in Hattiesburg, Miss., that killed Vernon Dahmer, a Mississippi civil rights leader—another crime that took decades to successfully prosecute).
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