Beginning with the Freedom Rides in 1961, Mississippi had become a hotbed of Civil Rights activity. The following year the federal government sent 500 U.S. Marshals to the University of Mississippi when James Meredith integrated the school, which was accompanied by rioting. Organizations such as CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee all were working in the state to register voters and hold local protests against segregation. COFO was formed as a coalition of these various civil rights organizations to coordinate their voter registration work throughout the state, to receive federal funding that had recently been made available by the Justice Department and to sidestep the national leadership of the different groups, who viewed each other as rivals. Under COFO, the groups worked together on organizing a massive grassroots campaign, voter registration drives and boycotts.
In response, violence to began to mount against the civil rights workers, which included black Southerners as well as white Northerners. On June 12, 1963, Medger Evers, a leading figure in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated. In response, COFO and other groups decided to increase their activism with sit-ins, protests and other events. Violence against them increased as well and they decided to focus their energy on a massive voter registration campaign for 1964: “Freedom Summer. “
Michael Schwerner was a member of CORE, working with COFO in the state, who had arrived from New York City in the spring with his wife Rita, also a CORE volunteer, to prepare for the impending influx of volunteers. They were the first whites to be stationed outside of Jackson, Mississippi for CORE. He became friends with James Charney, who was born in Meridian, Mississippi. He had been suspended in high school for wearing NAACP patches and had participated in Freedom Rides in 1962 before joining CORE the following year. On Memorial Day, Chaney and Schwerner spoke at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County to share information about the upcoming Freedom School, voter registration drives and opportunities to organize and protest. In response to this act, the Mississippi White Knights, a local offshoot of the Klu Klux Klan, attempted to intimidate COFO and put an end to their organizing activities. Participants in the conspiracy included the Sheriff of Neshoba County, Lawrence Rainey; police officer Other Burkes; Baptist preacher Edgar Killen, who was later convicted of planning the murders, along with six others.
They beat members of the congregation and burned down the church in order to lure COFO workers back to their county. Schwerner had traveled to Ohio to train Northern volunteers who would be participating in Freedom Summer. When he heard about the church arson, he wanted to return to investigate the occurrence and brought other COFO workers with him, including Andrew Goodman, who was originally from New York.
Meeting up with Chaney in Meridian, the three drove out to inspect the destruction. On their return journey, they were stopped and accused of speeding by Cecil Price, Deputy Sherriff of the county. They were taken to the Neshoba County jail and held until 10 pm, allowing time for a lynch mob to form. After being released, he followed them in patrol car to outside the town before stopping them again. He then escorted them back toward town and then to a rural intersection, where they met up with at least ten men, including Alton Roberts and James Jordan who shot them. They were then taken to a dam, where they put in a prepared hole and covered with dirt by a bulldozer.
Almost immediately, a search began for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. They had told the COFO Meridian office that they would return by 4 pm and to begin a search if they were not there. They notified the Jackson office at 4:45 pm and began calling authorities around the area. The car from the civil rights workers, which had been set on fire, was found that night and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered 150 federal agents sent to increase manpower from New Orleans within 36 hours. By the next day, there were hundreds of sailors searching the swamps (who incidentally found the bodies of two other men who had been killed by the KKK a month earlier and six other bodies of black Mississippians who had disappeared).
However, the event had the opposite of the intended effect: instead of dissuading activists, it caught the attention of the nation. President Lyndon B. Johnson and civil rights activists used the event to galvanize support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed July 2nd. Thanks to an informant, the bodies were found and in November the FBI charged 21 men with depriving the three activists of their civil rights. The more traditional charge of murder, which is a state crime, was not possible because Mississippi refused to prosecute them. Even then, a judge who was a segregationist dismissed the indictments, which had to be overruled by the Supreme Court. Seven of the men were finally convicted in 1967, becoming the first ever conviction for the killing civil rights workers in the state. Their sentences were from three to 10 years and none of them ended up serving more than six. 41 years later, Mississippi finally charged someone for the murders, Killen, and he was convicted of three counts of manslaughter with three consecutive 20 year sentences.
While justice was never properly administered for their heinous murders, they ended up serving as an important rallying point for the Civil Rights movement, especially in Mississippi. At the time, Schwerner’s widow rightly criticized the amount of national attention these deaths received because two of the people were white in comparison to the media surrounding the regular disappearances of black civil rights workers. However, this specific case did resonate nationally, serving to affect people who were not previously moved and galvanizing ones who already sympathized to take action. This tragedy helped later achievements, such as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, be enacted and that is some consolation.