June 21, 1964: Three civil rights’ workers: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, were lynched by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County’s Sheriff Office and the Philadelphia Police Department located in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The three had been working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign, attempting to register African Americans to vote. Their murders sparked national outrage and a massive federal investigation. The FBI referred to this investigation as Mississippi Burning (MIBURN), and eventually found the bodies 44 days later in an earthen dam near the murder site.
After the state government refused to prosecute, the federal government initially charged 18 individuals but was only able to secure convictions for seven of them, who received relatively minor sentences for their actions. However, outrage over their deaths assisted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At the time, most colored Mississippians were denied the power of voting, a privilege of educated White Mississippians. CORE wanted to address this problem by starting voting registration drives and setting up places called Freedom Schools. Freedom schools were established to educate, encourage, and register the disenfranchised colored citizens. CORE members James Chaney and Michael Schwerner intended to set up a Freedom School for colored people in Neshoba County.
On Memorial Day in 1964, Schwerner and Chaney spoke to the congregation at Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi; their speech was about setting up a Freedom School. Schwerner implored them to register to vote and saying “you have been slaves too long, we can help you help yourselves”. The White Knights learned of Schwerner’s voting drive in Neshoba County and soon set in motion a plot to hinder their work and ultimately destroy their efforts. The White Knights wanted to lure CORE workers to Neshoba County, so they beat the congregation members and then torched the church, burning it to the ground.
On June 21, 1964, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner met at the Meridian COFO headquarters to prepare to leave for Longdale, Mississippi, to investigate the destruction of the Mount Zion Church. Schwerner told COFO Meridian to search for them if they were not back by 4 pm; he said “if we’re not back by then start trying to locate for us.”
After visiting Longdale, the three civil rights workers decided not to take the road down 491 toward Meridian. The narrow country road was not paved and littered with abandoned buildings. They decided to head west along highway 16 and made a left turn onto Highway 19 toward Meridian figuring it would be the faster route, but the route led into the interior of “bloody” Neshoba County. The day was fast approaching three in the afternoon, and they were to be in Meridian by four.Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s decision would prove to be deadly.
Almost simultaneously as they entered the Philadelphia city limits the CORE station wagon had a flat tire and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price turned on his dash board mounted red light. The trio stopped near the Beacon and Main Street fork. With a long radio antenna mounted to his patrol car, Price called for officer Harry Wiggs and E. R. Poe of the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
Chaney was arrested for doing 65 mph in a 35 mph zone; Goodman and Schwerner were held to be investigated. They were taken to the Neshoba County jail located on Myrtle Street which was only a block away from the courthouse. The 4 p.m. deadline came and went with no word from the three workers. By 4:45 p.m., COFO Jackson office was notified that the trio did not return from Neshoba County. Telephone calls were made to area authorities but produced no results. Neshoba County offices were contacted but denied ever seeing the civil rights workers.
PURSUIT ON HIGHWAY 19:
After the release of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner around 10 p.m. from the Neshoba County jail, they were followed almost immediately by Deputy Sheriff Price in his 1957 white Chevrolet sedan patrol car. Soon after, the civil rights workers left the city limits located along Hospital Road, they headed south on state highway 19.
The civil rights workers arrived at Pilgrim’s store where they may have been inclined to stop and use the telephone, but the presence of a Mississippi Highway Safety patrol car, manned by officer Wiggs and Poe, most likely dissuaded them. They continued south toward Meridian. The lynch mob, who was in Barnette’s and Posey’s cars, was drinking while arguing who would kill the three young men. Eventually Philadelphia Police Officer Burkes drove up to Horace D. Barnette’s car and told the mob that “they’re going on 19 toward Meridian. Follow them!”
After a quick rendezvous with Philadelphia police officer Richard Willis, Price was in pursuit of the three civil rights workers. Posey’s Chevrolet carried Sharpe, Townsend, and Roberts. Posey’s car apparently had carburetor problems and was forced to be parked at the side of the highway. Sharpe and Townsend were ordered to stay with Posey’s car and service it. In Horace’s car were Jordan, Arledge, Snowden, Roberts, and Posey.
Price eventually caught the CORE station wagon heading west toward Union, Mississippi, on state highway 492. Soon the three civil right workers would be escorted north on Highway 19 to secluded Rock Cut Road where they would be executed by Roberts and Jordan. After the murders, Jordan reportedly said, “well, you didn’t leave me nothing but a nigger, but at least I killed me a nigger.”
DISPOSING OF THE EVIDENCE:
After the three men were shot, their bodies were quickly loaded into their Ford station wagon and were sent to Burrage’s Old Jolly Farm dam located along Highway 21, a few miles southwest of Philadelphia. Herman Tucker was at the dam waiting for the arrival of the lynch mob. Tucker was a heavy machinery operator and was most likely the one who covered up the bodies using a bulldozer that he owned. Earlier in the day, Posey, Burrage, and Tucker had met at Posey’s gasoline station or Burrage’s garage to discuss burial details.
After the bodies were buried, Price told the group:
“Well, boys, you’ve done a good job. You’ve struck a blow for the white man. Mississippi can be proud of you. You’ve let those agitating outsiders know where this state stands. Go home now and forget it. But before you go, I’m looking each one of you in the eye and telling you this: “The first man who talks is dead! If anybody who knows anything about this ever opens his mouth to any outsider about it, then the rest of us are going to kill him just as dead as we killed those three son of bitches tonight. Does everybody understand what I’m saying. The man who talks is dead, dead, dead!”
Eventually, Tucker was tasked with disposing of the CORE station wagon in Alabama, but, for reasons unknown, the station wagon was left near a river in northeast Neshoba County along Highway 21. The station wagon was soon set ablaze and abandoned.
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