Wednesday, July 9, 2008

They Could Be In Cuba.

In the summer of 1964, the "Freedom Summer" campaign was launched. Dedicated to register to vote as many African American voters as possible in the state of Mississippi, which up to that time had almost totally excluded black voters. The project was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella of four established civil rights organizations: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Over 1,000 people volunteered interested in helping out the civil rights cause.

At that time, many of Mississippi's white residents deeply resented the outsiders and any attempt to change their society. State and local governments, police, the White Citizens' Council and the Ku Klux Klan used murder, arrests, beatings, arson, rape, spying, firing, evictions, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieving social equality

On June 19, the United States Senate -- after a lengthy filibuster and vote of cloture -- passed the landmark Civil Rights Act. Two days later, three progressives James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man and local Freedom Movement activist from Meridian, Mississippi; Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old white Jewish man, student and summer volunteer from New York; and Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old white Jewish CORE organizer and former social worker also from New York travelled to Neshoba County, in order to inspect the ruins of the Mount Zion United Methodist Church.

The church, a meeting place for civil rights groups, had been burned just five days earlier. Before the three left the area, they stopped by the local COFO office. Schwerner, aware that their station wagon's license number had been given to members of the notorious local Citizens Council, told COFO workers to contact the FBI if he hadn't called them by 4:30 p.m.

At approximately 5:00, Neshoba County deputy Cecil Price stopped the blue Ford carrying the trio. He arrested Chaney for allegedly driving 35 miles per hour over the speed limit. He also booked Goodman and Schwerner, "for investigation." All were denied telephone calls during their time at the jail. COFO workers made attempts to find the three men, but when they called the Neshoba County jail, the secretary followed her instructions to lie and told the workers the three young men were not there.

Chaney was then fined $20, and the three men were ordered to leave the county. Price followed them to the edge of town, and saw them heading toward Meridian on State Highway 19, at approximately 10:30 p.m.

That was the last time they were seen alive.

Some local officials were hardly sympathetic to their dissapearance. Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey said, "They're just hiding and trying to cause a lot of bad publicity for this part of the state". Mississippi governor Paul Johnson dismissed concern by stating that "they could be in Cuba."

When the FBI offered a reward for news of the men's whereabouts, a break came in the case. The men's bodies were found on August 4. Schwerner and Goodman had each been shot once in the heart; Chaney, the lone African-American, had been savagely beaten and shot three time

The Ku Klux Klan, aided by local police, kidnapped and brutally murdered them. Despite overwhelming evidence and two confessions, the State refused to prosecute the killers.

The U. S. Department of Justice appointed John Doar, to bring Federal charges (of Civil Rights Violations) against the killers. Against tremendous odds, Doar's successful prosecution led to convictions against many of the conspirators. However, after 40 years, and only in 2005, finally was one of the killers convicted of their murders.

On this hot summer night, with all the bickering over the primary and election, let us pause and remember the sacrifices of the progressives before us and continue to fight for justice in the world.

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