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April 01, 2000

Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman: The Struggle for Justice - Human Rights Magazine, Spring 2000

Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman: The Struggle for Justice

By Ben Chaney

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from a speech presented by Ben Chaney before the New York Bar Association in 1999. For a copy of the entire speech, contact The James Earl Chaney Foundation at 212/475-3232.

In Mississippi, in the 1960s, when segregation was king, racism the status quo, and bigotry the law, it was young people who rose up and challenged the system. In racially segregated and economically depressed Neshoba County, Mississippi, it was the local black youth and northern volunteers who challenged racism and led the fight for freedom and justice. Because of the sacrifices made by many people, most of the obvious signs of racism and bigotry have been eliminated. Because of the brutal beatings suffered by demonstrators at the hands of segregationists, public facilities have been desegregated.

To achieve the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many marched, demonstrated, and suffered brutal beatings. And some died. For three who died, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, we still continue the struggle for justice.

The History

Civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman disappeared at approximately 10:00 p.m., Sunday, June 21, 1964. The next day their burned-out station wagon was found in the Bogue Chitto swamp, and the bodies of the three civil rights workers were found forty-four days later, buried fifteen feet in an earthen dam. Three years after their murders, twenty-one Klansmen were arrested by the FBI, and on February 27, 1967, a federal grand jury for the Southern District of Mississippi indicted nineteen members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (White Knights) under Title 18, section 241, for conspiracy "on or about January 1, 1964, and continuing to, on or about December 4, 1964, to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and Andrew Goodman." A two-week federal trial in Meridian, Mississippi, resulted in seven guilty verdicts and sentences ranging from three to ten years.

The State of Mississippi has never filed criminal murder charges against any of the men involved in the murders. After careful review of the available evidence, including the 2,900 pages of the transcript from the 1967 federal trial, a list of exhibits found in the appendix to the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and two signed confessions, it is evident that an organization known as the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was complicit in the murders of the three civil rights workers.

The Sovereignty Commission. In March 1956, Mississippi Governor J.P. Coleman made a request of the Mississippi legislature to enact a state sovereignty bill that would preserve segregation of the races in the state." (Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, "Mississippi Is Final Battleground for Activists Trying to End Spying by States," Clarion Ledger, July 28, 1989.) The Mississippi legislature responded by creating the Missis-sippi State Sovereignty Commission (the Commission). The Commission's purpose was to investigate, collect, and disseminate information on so-called race agitators and subversives. To accomplish its goals and to maintain its statewide intelligence network, the Commission hired investigators and informants to gather information on civil rights workers, and even paid African American leaders to inform on civil rights workers in their own communities. In addition, the Commission collaborated with law enforcement officers who were sympathetic to and actively supported the Ku Klux Klan (the Klan).

The Commission was composed of some of the most powerful figures in the state, including the governor, the state attorney general, the president of the state senate, and the speaker of the state house of representatives. Other members included state supreme court judges, senators, and members of the state house of representatives. The relationship between the Commission and these high ranking state officials provided additional legitimacy to the organization.

Although there is no physical evidence that the Commission directly participated in these murders, a mountain of circumstantial evidence, documented within the Commission's own files, confirms that: (1) the Commission provided legitimacy to the White Citizens' Council and the Klan; (2) the Commission was a source of information for the Citizens' Council and the Klan; (3) the Commission worked to impede the federal investigation of the murders; (4) it thwarted a state prosecution; (5) then-Governor (and Commission member) Paul Johnson withheld information from the FBI; and (6) by gathering and distributing information about Michael Schwerner and his travel plans to Klansmen in Meridian and Philadelphia, Mississippi, the Commission participated in the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman. The Commission, the White Citizens' Council, and the Klan. From the beginning, the Commission was comprised largely of men from the White Citizens' Council (Citizens' Council), an organization commonly described as "a current version of the Klan," a "scrubbed-up cousin of the Klan," "a white collar Klan," "an uptown Klan," a "button-down Klan," and a "country club Klan." (Neil McMillan, The Citizens' Council: Organized Resistance to the Second Reconstruction 1954-1964 (1971).) Because the members of the Commission were also members of the Citizens' Council, the Citizens' Council was able to use the Commission to spread its influence into every agency in Mississippi, while the Commission collaborated with the most insidious segregationists in the state.

There was an unofficial relationship between the Commission and the Klan. Members of the Citizens' Council were also Klansmen, and the more influential the Citizens' Council member, the more influence he had with the Klan.

Freedom Summer

Until 1964, blacks in Mississippi were the primary ones fighting for the right to vote and the only ones dying for the right. However, in 1964, Mississippi prepared for its greatest challenge-Freedom Summer. Freedom Summer plans to bring white, middle-class students from the North to Mississippi to work with the local blacks made Mississippi's state government, local and state law enforcement, and public officials extremely nervous. It was in this atmosphere that the White Knights, a more violent offshoot of the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was born.

The mission of the White Knights was to serve as an auxiliary to local law enforcement agencies, the Commission, and the Citizens' Council, and to promote terror through violence. From May 1964 until December 1964, the White Knights was responsible for more than fourteen murders.

In April 1964, the Klan voted to eliminate Michael Schwerner and made that intention a part of its program. (Federal Trial Transcripts, 765-66 (1967).) By May, the plan to eliminate Schwerner was in place. (Johnston, Erle, Report on Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: 1964-1967)

A Web of Conspiracy. In January, after Schwerner and his wife, Rita, arrived in Mississippi and began working in a community center in Meridian, three investigators from the Commission "made a personal visit to each sheriff in the 82 [Mississippi] counties . . . . During these trips to each county, the investigators updated [their] files on [the] activities of subversives and agitators." (Johnston, Erle, Report on Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: 1964-1967) Commission records indicated that in February 1964, a member of the Citizens' Council obtained the license plate number of Schwerner's car and circulated a description of the car throughout the state. (Jerry Mitchell, "State Spied on Schwerner 3 Months Before Death," Clarion-Ledger (Sept. 10, 1989).)

In March, the Commission began an intensive surveillance of the Schwerners. (Id.) A.L. Hopkins, a Commission investigator, reported: "Both Michael and Rita Schwerner are in Meridian working for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Their purpose there is evidently to contact local Negroes for the purpose of encouraging them to register to vote and also to teach them how to pass the voter registration examination." (A.L. Hopkins, Investigation of Unknown White Male CORE Worker in Meridian, Mississippi (Mar. 19, 1964).) Less than three months after the Schwerners' arrival in Mississippi, the Commission knew where they lived, where they worked, whom they saw, and their mode of transportation.

In April and early May, James Chaney made several trips into Neshoba County. Chaney's job was to locate sites that could be used for Freedom Schools. During these trips he drove a blue Ford station wagon that had been identified for the Klan.

In the early morning hours of June 16, Michael and Rita Schwerner, James Chaney, and two others departed for Oxford, Ohio, to attend training sessions for Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers.

On the evening of June 16, Klansmen firebombed the Mt. Zion Church in Neshoba County-a church that had agreed to become a Freedom School-and beat church members attending a revival service. (Federal Trial Transcripts, 770-78 (1967).) Word of the destruction of the church reached Schwerner and Chaney in Ohio on June 17. They decided to return immediately to Mississippi to visit the church in hopes of persuading the victims of the attack to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice. Andrew Goodman returned with them after having been recruited by Schwerner and Chaney in Ohio.

R.L. Bolden, an officer in the Mississippi state chapter of the NAACP, later identified as "Agent X," one of the Commission's agents, informed the Commission of their return, including arrival information, license plate number, route, and destination. ("Agent X" was the code name used to refer to the Sovereignty Commission agents who spied on Michael Schwerner.) The information R.L. Bolden supplied to the Commission was given to local law enforcement officers in Philadelphia and Meridian and to known Klansmen.

By the time Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman left Oxford for Mississippi, their murders had been legitimized, and the plot had been hatched.

Obstacles to Reopening the Case

Since the 1960s, Mississippi's most powerful leaders have resisted charging the killers and/or those who aided the killers with the murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. In 1964, Governor Paul B. Johnson vehemently opposed charging the Klansmen with murder, stating that "we did not have a case that would stand up, that there was no sense in making the arrest unless the case would hold . . . . it [a murder trial] would be laughed out of the country." (Paul Johnson, Oral History (1970).)

On September 24, 1997, I wrote Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore urging him to reinvestigate the murders. His response, through his assistant, was that his "office does not have the authority to reopen the case." The Mississippi Constitution and the Mississippi Supreme Court afford Mississippi's attorney general all the authority and powers needed to convene a grand jury and prosecute the murderers of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman. (Miss. Const., art. 6, § 173.)

It is generally recognized that the attorney general is authorized to prosecute criminal cases whenever statewide interest requires. (State v. Key, 93 Miss. 115, 118, 46 So. 75, 76 (1908).) Attorney General Moore ultimately determines matters of statewide interest. Further, under section 7-5-1 of the Mississippi Code of 1972, he is the "chief legal officer and advisor for the state, both civil and criminal, and is charged with managing all litigation on behalf of the state." "It would appear that his [Attorney General Moore's] common law power accords him the right to do any act which a District Attorney might do, even without statutory recognition of subpoena and/or investigative authority; that is, the attorney general can do each and everything essential to prosecute in accordance with the law of the land, including investigating and appearing before a Grand Jury in prosecuting a criminal action." (H.M. Ray, "Constitutional and Statutory Authority of the Attorney General to Prosecute Actions," 59 Mississippi Law J. 6 (1989).)

In fact, we have learned that in 1989 Special Assistant Attorneys General John R. Henry and Jack B. Lacy, Jr., in a report to Attorney General Moore recommended that his office prosecute the murderers of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. In their report, Henry and Lacy concluded that "enough vital evidence existed" for a state prosecution. (Jerry Mitchell, "Crimes of the Past," Clarion Ledger (Feb. 2, 1999).)

Attorney General Moore is a powerful man. He has the authority to dispense justice arbitrarily, and he is supported by other powerful men. U.S. Senator Trent Lott, who, while a student at the University of Mississippi, was an "actor" with the Commission, also supports not prosecuting the Klansmen. In 1989, through a spokesperson, Senator Lott stated: "While this was a sad chapter in our nation's history, the events have and will continue to speak for themselves. I prefer to focus on the progress Mississippi has made." ("Cochran, Lott Won't Sign Resolution for Slain Activists," Clarion Ledger (June 28, 1989).)


James Chaney was my brother. He and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were committed to the belief that this country and its constitutional privileges are guarantees that all of us-regardless of color, sex, or religion-have a right to participate in our great demo-cratic process and we all have a right to be treated fairly under the law. It is time that we dedicate ourselves and make a firm commitment to the success of the struggle and the preservation of our liberties by securing justice now so that future generations will not have to live in fear.

Ben Chaney is the founder and president of The James Earl Chaney Foundation. His brother, James Chaney, a civil rights worker, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan along with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.