Home About Us Media Kit Subscriptions Links Forum

View Select Articles

Download PDF










Camps & Sports


Children’s Corner

Collected Features


Cover Stories

Distance Learning


Famous Interviews


Medical Update

Metro Beat

Movies & Theater


Music, Art & Dance

Special Education

Spotlight On Schools

Teachers of the Month



















Murdered But Still Alive:
Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner:
Forty-Two Years Later Family Members Speak Out

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

June 21, 1964. Neshoba County, Mississippi. It is a story that has festered like an ugly wound in the civil rights annals of this country, one of the unimaginable atrocities that spread like a plague during Freedom Summer 1964. As part of a massive black voter registration campaign in Mississippi led by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), three civil rights workers—black Mississippian James Earl Chaney (21) and white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman(20) and Michael (Mickey) Schwerner(24)—were on their way back to the CORE office after investigating the firebombing of a black church (one of 37 churches and 30 black homes that had been torched by angry white mobs that summer.) Deputy sheriff Cecil Price arrested the three young men on speeding charges and held them in the Neshoba jail. They were released later that evening, only to be ambushed and shot to death on a deserted road by Ku Klux Klansmen who had been tipped off to their whereabouts. Their bodies were discovered 44 days later, buried in a shallow earthen dam, after a massive FBI search.

October 21, 1967. Based on the testimony of Klansman James Jordon, seven men (including Jordon and Sheriff Price) were found guilty of conspiring to deprive Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner of their civil rights. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years but none served more than six.

June 21, 2005. On the forty-first anniversary of the crime, 80 year old Edgar Ray Killen, a Ku Klux Klan member and part-time preacher, was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison, the maximum term possible, for orchestrating the deaths of the three civil rights workers.

Family members of James Earl Chaney (brother Ben), Andrew Goodman (mother Carolyn and brother David), and Michael Schwerner (widow Rita Schwerner Bender and brother Stephen) spoke to Education Update about their views on the civil rights battles waged in the South in the sixties and whether the ideals for which their loved ones fought and died  have been realized in America today.

How did the murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner change the consciousness of this nation?

Rita Schwerner Bender: It is important to remember that many people were killed and most were not noticed. These three murders, in isolation, were clearly painful to the families. But one of the terrible things that doesn’t get talked about very much is that, while they were looking for [Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner], there were two young men found in the Mississippi River, and there was the partial body of what was determined to be a fourteen year old boy who was never identified…and they were black, these three people, yet nobody ever paid any attention to them. It was the efforts of many people over a period of many years that brought about some change. It was the lynchings that went on over many years, it was the fire hoses in Birmingham, it was the church bombings…It was the march in Selma. It was all the people who stood in voter registration lines and were beaten for it and lost their jobs. It was the sharecroppers who were kicked off the land. So you see, it was all these things that raised the consciousness of the country, at least for a while.

David Goodman: What got people to care was that people who were white got killed. The powerful media was focused on white America who didn’t give a damn. [This incident] shocked the rest of the country into realizing that whites can kill whites. I was shocked that it had to happen this way for people to care. (Goodman was 17 years old when his brother died.)

Stephen Schwerner: The most important thing to get across is that if two of the three people hadn’t been white, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

What do you think of the Edgar Ray Killen verdict? Has justice been served?

David Goodman: The issue was not Edgar Ray Killen. He was just a poor schlemiel who had a gun and organized those poor unfortunate souls. They knew not what they were doing….They weren’t responsible. They just pulled the trigger. They were puppets of the legislature and the governor.

Rita Schwerner Bender: We need to understand that this was governmental misconduct. These were not just a bunch of rogue thugs. It’s easy to say, ‘This was the Klan.’ The Klan was law enforcement in the state of Mississippi. The Klan was getting its information from the Sovereignty Commission, which was a branch of the State Government, which had informants who advised people when [Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner] would be coming to the church. The Sovereignty Commission had paid agents and informants and they did horrible things. They asked bankers to call in loans from people who tried to register to vote. They contacted landowners who would then kick sharecroppers off the land. Without there being truth, there can’t be reconciliation. The day after the jury verdict in the Killen case came in, the Governor of Mississippi said, ‘Now we can have closure.’ We haven’t had opening yet! Yes, it’s troublesome that only one person was indicted, but I don’t see that as being as important to the national consciousness as opening up the extent of misconduct which caused all of these terrible things to happen, not just these three murders.

Ben Chaney: I think the trial was a farce. Even though…Killen was definitely guilty, there are other people who are just as guilty, only they’re rich and powerful, and the State Attorney General has not moved against those individuals…Killen was a scapegoat.

Stephen Schwerner: I’m convinced that there were connections between the FBI and state law enforcement and that state law enforcement was essentially sanctioning terror against the civil rights workers and black people in general. I think it’s important that those connections come out. So if I had my druthers, that would be more important for me than other people being tried.

Have things gotten a lot better since 1964?

David Goodman: LBJ used this case to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act [outlawing the use of literacy tests and poll taxes for voter registration.] But the case was still politically unpopular in Mississippi. In 1989, Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus apologized to the three families [of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner] publicly. But he then lost [in a race for governor in 1995] to a Republican [Kirk Fordice] who said, ‘Never apologize.’ Society at large didn’t want to hear it.

Stephen Schwerner: It’s a mixed bag. There are more African Americans in the Mississippi State Legislature today than in any other state in the United States. In 1963, when the Birmingham [Alabama] demonstrations were going on, if you had said that 20 years later, the mayor of Birmingham would be black, they would have put you in a mental hospital…and if you had said that 40 years later, the chief of police, who’s holding down Bull Connors’ old job, would be a black woman, they would have put you in the far reaches of the mental ward! But at the same time, there are more segregated classrooms in the United States today than there were when Brown v. Board of Education ended that in 1954. The difference between the mean wage of white people and the mean wage of black people is now greater than it was twenty years ago. So there have been real advances and real setbacks since then.

Ben Chaney: There are still a lot of young black people who don’t understand the system or how the system operates and the sacrifices that were made so they can enjoy and be included in the system. So our focus has been to educate and empower young people. We’re going to do another freedom ride this summer. It reveals history to young people and lets them participate in that history. [In June 2004, Chaney led a caravan of buses on “Freedom Summer 2004 Ride for Justice,” conducting a vigorous voter registration drive targeting young adults aged 18-30 and educating them about the civil rights struggle.]

How should schools be educating their students about the civil rights movement?

Carolyn Goodman: Children should be encouraged to be active participants in life. [Students should be learning] that which gives them an opportunity to open doors.

Stephen Schwerner: What I would like to see taught is an appreciation for the thousands of people, most of them black (but not exclusively), most of them women (but not exclusively), whom nobody will ever know, who risked life, limb, jobs, family, houses, and property for the civil rights movement. Most of these people are anonymous. We are so involved in the “great man” theory of history, for the lack of a better term. Much as I admire Martin Luther King and other great leaders, if you teach that it takes a great person to lead a movement, then that tells everyone else, ‘Well, you’re not great, so you don’t have to do anything.’

Rita Schwerner Bender: Don’t teach civil rights history as something that’s over and done with. There’s a connection between what we live with now and the inevitable legacy of poverty, of Jim Crow, of slavery. History is important to teach because it’s a continuum, but there’s no point talking about the past unless you understand that it’s how we got where we are.

Are there any lessons you’ve taken away from the tragedies of the sixties on a personal level?

Ben Chaney: Never give up.



Show email





Education Update, Inc.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2009.