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