Mississippi Freedom Summer: The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Murders, Part 2

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(This is the second part of my two-part profile of the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the brutal murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi)

The lynching of black Americans had a long history, going as far back as Reconstruction. In the early 20th century, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, lynchings rose dramatically, in direct proportion to African Americans finding a foothold as sharecroppers and small landowners. It’s a fact that most lynchings occurred late in the year, when cotton accounts needed to be settled.

By June 1964, the state of Mississippi had the highest rate of lynchings in the country.

On August 4, 1964, after 44 days of searching by the FBI, civil rights organizations, and the U.S. military, the bodies of missing civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were located. They’d been buried in an earthen dam on a farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Both Schwerner and Goodman had been shot in the chest at close range. Chaney had been severely beaten with a metal chain, then shot in the abdomen and head.

Later testimony showed that they had been followed in the night by the KKK and local officials, then stopped and terrorized before being killed. One of the killers had asked Schwerner if he was “that nigger lover.” Schwerner, drawing on skills he’d learned as a leader in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), tried to defuse the situation by responding “Sir, I know just how you feel.” But he was shot nonetheless.

Ten complicit in the murders

Ten complicit in the murders

The murderers moved the bodies to Old Jolly Farm, owned by one of the killers, ex-Marine Olen L. Burrage. They then set the victims’ station wagon ablaze near a river along Highway 21.

***

The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner case was the most sensational incident of what’s known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The three CORE volunteers were part of hundreds of college students, mainly white and from the North, who fifty years ago traveled to rural homes in Mississippi to register blacks to vote. Voter registration was focused on because Mississippi was largely rural, so busing and lunch counter desegregation weren’t big issues. Also, due to intimidation and chicanery by white officials, Mississippi had the lowest percentage of black voter registry than any state in the country; only 6.7 percent of eligible black voters in Mississippi were registered.

Along with registration, the Freedom Summer volunteers established Freedom Schools to educate black children and adults (white Mississippians had a vested interest in keeping black Mississippians ignorant). They also established a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white, segregationist delegation scheduled to appear at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

They did all of this within a dark vortex of violence. Beatings, burnings, and bombings were a reality in 1960s Mississippi.

While the disappearance and murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner made national headlines, Mickey Schwerner’s widow Rita was quoted as saying that, had not two of the victims been white, the killings would never have created such commotion. In fact, during the search, Navy sailors who dragged local rivers uncovered at least eight bodies of young black men who had also been lynched. But their disappearances had not been deemed that important (see “Mississippi Cold Case,” a documentary about two of these murders).

The deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were not in vain. Only a year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which enforced the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and ended racial discrimination at the voting booth, including eliminating literacy tests and poll taxes. Today, Mississippi has the highest percentage of African American elected officials of any state in the union.

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks at signing of Voting Rights Act

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks at signing of Voting Rights Act

(Note: only a year ago, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, weakened the Voting Rights Act by effectively nullifying Section 5 of the Act.  This section had required certain states with a history of race bias in voting to submit any election changes to the federal government for approval before they went into effect)

***

Freedom isn’t free. It has to be fought for, and not necessarily on the battlefield. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were foot soldiers in a non-violent crusade to secure basic human rights for blacks in the most vicious corner of the Deep South. They tragically lost their lives, but their efforts, and those of the other young volunteers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, put a massive stake in the heart of the idea of white supremacy.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, it’s obvious the fight isn’t over.

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3 thoughts on “Mississippi Freedom Summer: The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Murders, Part 2

  1. Pete:

    Another great piece.  Thanks for sharing.  It brings to mind one of my favorite movies, Mississippi Burning.

    However, I disagree with your assertion that the Voting Rights Act was necessarily weakened in Shelby County v. Holder.  Tremendous progress has been made since 1965 due to the VRA, in which Section 5 was only supposed to exist for 5 years but became politically untouchable.  It’s important to remember that Section 2 of the VRA is permanent and allows challenges to discriminatory voting regulations anytime and anywhere.  Today we live in a nation that has twice elected a black president, and one who has chosen a black attorney general.  I think it’s safe to say that all voters, white and black, clearly understand voting laws and are empowered to speak out against discriminatory practices without fear of retribution. 

    Here’s a good piece that ran in the WSJ that explains what I’m trying to say.  Keep up the good work, Pete. 

    Voting Rights Watershed

    Voting Rights Watershed The Wall Street Journal argues the Supreme Court can signal the U.S. has come a long way from 1965. View on online.wsj.com Preview by Yahoo  

  2. Pete – the link to the article to which I referred still has a privacy block.  Here’s the text from that article. 

    Is the American South—and for that matter the South Bronx—still so uniquely racist that it requires special supervision by the federal government over its election laws? That’s the nub of the Supreme Court case that, judging by Wednesday’s oral argument, could be another watershed in the American march toward racial equality. The Constitution says the federal government must treat all states equally under the law. This is called the “equal footing” doctrine, and exceptions require extraordinary circumstances to pass legal muster. Such circumstances certainly prevailed in 1965 when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to overturn local and state laws that denied blacks their right to vote.

    Sections 4 and 5 of the law require that nine states and parts of seven others (including the Bronx) get preclearance from the Justice Department or federal court to change their election laws. Such federal enforcement swept away poll taxes and other obstacles to voting.                 The law quickly led to blacks registering in proportion to their population, and over time to many more elected black officials. In 1972 Alabama, 80.7% of whites were registered to vote compared to 57.1% of blacks. By 2004, 73.8% of whites were registered compared to 72.9% of blacks. By 2004 in Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina, a larger proportion of black residents were registered than white voters. In that sense the Voting Rights Act is one of the most successful laws in American history.

    The question in Shelby County v. Holder is whether such federal supervision over some parts of the country is still necessary amid so much racial progress. Congress originally set Section 5 to expire after five years. It was reauthorized in 1970 for another five years and has since become politically untouchable and was reauthorized in 2006 for 25 more.

    But why should Mississippi be treated differently than Massachusetts if its practices show better racial outcomes? Chief Justice John Roberts made this point forcefully Wednesday when he asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli : “Do you know which state has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African American voter turnout?” Mr. Verrilli: “I do not.”

    Chief Justice Roberts: “Massachusetts. Do you know what has the best, where African American turnout actually exceeds white turnout? Mississippi.”

    Justice Anthony Kennedy pointedly said that “times have changed” and he asked if (say) Alabama should remain “under the trusteeship of the United States government” or act as a sovereign state even if it wanted to “acknowledge the wrongs of its past?”

    Liberals are portraying the case as an attempt to overturn the entire Voting Rights Act. But Section 2 of the law is permanent and allows challenges to discriminatory election laws anywhere in the country. Section 2 also allows for preliminary injunctions, so the feds can stop states from pulling a discriminatory stunt close to an election. Liberals hail the inevitable march of progress, yet on race they prefer not to admit that there has been any progress. The brutal reality of Jim Crow justified federal intrusion on state sovereignty in 1965. But 52 years later, Americans have twice elected a black President, who appointed a black Attorney General.

    The Supreme Court can recognize and honor American racial progress by restoring the “equal footing” doctrine to election laws and declaring that Sections 4 and 5 are no longer necessary.

    • Thanks for the great feedback, Tad! I love getting this stuff and having a good discussion. I figured that the last sentence in my post might trigger a reaction… occasionally I do throw caution to the wind!

      When the Court struck down Section 5, I initially agreed that, yeah, times have changed. We don’t still have the overt Jim Crow racism we once had in Southern states (thanks in part to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act). Should we still have federal scrutiny of certain states and jurisdictions? Maybe not. Why continue to “punish” these states for past transgressions? I’m also aware of the influence of the African American lobby in Washington and how it affects so much policy.

      But although it’s not as in-your-face as it once was, there’s still bigotry beneath the surface. Today, much of the suppression relates to economics rather than skin color and is attributable to party politics rather than ignorant whites wearing hoods. Within hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, Mississippi and Texas pushed forward new voter ID requirements, with Texas also pursuing redistricting plans (both states previously needed federal preclearance). North Carolina immediately enacted maybe the toughest voting restrictions in the country. In all, 15 states have stricter voting rules since Shelby County v. Holder, and all except one state (Rhode Island) are controlled by Republican legislatures… I’m sure you’ll agree that Republicans can only gain from making it more difficult for blacks, Hispanics, young, elderly, and the underprivileged to vote. Isn’t a democracy supposed to make it easier for people to become engaged, not harder?

      Yes, we have an African American as president. Not many people in 1965 would’ve believed this. But of the nine states that Section 5 demanded preclearance from prior to changing their voting laws, all except Virginia voted for McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 (North Carolina strangely wasn’t one of the nine). The argument just doesn’t hold water that, because we have a black man as president, we should now let down our guard regarding voting rights. It’s like hunters arguing that, now that wolves are finally making a comeback in Yellowstone, let’s lift their protection and declare open season on them.

      White supremacy may no longer be as overt in the South as it once was. But the GOP knows that their cause is assisted when certain disadvantaged demographic groups are forced to show a photo ID at the polls. Or when officials can change a voting district to encompass a majority of white males.
      I also have to take issue with the Wall Street Journal’s claim that “Liberals hail the inevitable march of progress, yet on race they prefer not to admit that there has been any progress.” The second half of this sentence is totally idiotic and has no basis in logic (blanket clichés about “liberals” doesn’t help this writer’s argument). Also, Section 2 may indeed permit litigation for discrimination in elections. But litigation is after the fact, and all of us know how long and cumbersome the legal process is. Let’s suppose a single, black mom in Mississippi, juggling several jobs and several kids, hovering around the poverty line, is forced to cast a provisional ballot because she didn’t originally have a photo ID. Her provisional ballot is now denied by officials due to some flimsy technicality. She’s now going to use her food money to hire a lawyer??

      The writer also cites U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as a beneficiary of the Voting Rights Act. Holder was nominated by Obama and confirmed by the Senate, he wasn’t elected.

      I saw several interviews with red state conservatives after the Shelby decision. They couldn’t adequately answer the question “Why do you now need stricter voting laws?” We always hear how conservatives want to simplify the tax code, or cut federal red tape. Yet when it comes to voting, they want to make things more complicated. The reason why is obvious.

      Anyway, that’s my take. Thanks again for your usual thoughtful perspective. My next post will be less controversial. It’s a travel piece about visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown. I know you’re into motorcycles, and Hibbing, Minnesota is a perfect bike destination… at least during the town’s 3 short weeks of summer!

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