The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning, Part 3


When Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price let Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman out of jail at 10:30 pm on Father’s Day, 1964, the Meridian CORE office had been trying to find out where they were for several hours. That was protocol; if a field worker didn’t check in on a regular basis, start the phone tree going. So the first thing Mickey Schwerner should have done after being released was to have found a phone and called the office to report what had happened.

Price had not let the trio use a phone while they were in jail. Perhaps there wasn’t a pay phone nearby. Perhaps the three just wanted to get out of Philadelphia as quickly as possible. They hadn’t reached the city limits before Price caught up with them again along with several other Klansmen. According to Klansman James Jordan’s confession, they were put in Price’s car and driven to an isolated road. Schwerner and Goodman were killed with one bullet each. James Chaney was tortured before being shot. The bodies were dumped in an earth dam already picked out by the organizers.

Bob Moses was correct in believing that something happening to young white people in Mississippi would bring action from the federal government. On June 22, the FBI swarmed to the area, ordered there by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The car Schwerner had been driving was found by Choctaw Indians on a swampy river on their property. It took another 44 days before the FBI’s efforts to turn Klansmen against each other took them to the burial site.

“Mississippi Burning,” or “MIBURN,” was the name of the FBI’s file on the case. It is also, of course, the name of the movie made in the 1990s about the aftermath of the murders and the hunt for the bodies. At the time the movie came out, I was doing film reviews for the newspaper I worked for. I don’t have the clipping, but I’m sure I gave it a very good review. I watched it again recently to see whether my younger self had been too kind to the movie. It hadn’t.

Despite cinematic flourishes and changing the protagonists’ names, the movie still opens a window onto a tragic, shameful piece of US history that many might not know about otherwise. It opens with a scene of the car carrying Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman on a lonely country road, driving up one hill and down another, like some kind of a roller coaster. And suddenly at the rise of a hill behind them, there is a truck that then disappears into the dip. Then there’s another truck on the hill behind the first, and so on. And you know these young men are doomed.

Instead of focusing on the actual FBI agent who led the investigation, the movie casts two characters that are really metaphors. A Kennedy-esque looking Willem Dafoe is the straight arrow who does everything by the book and brings his Northern sensibilities to Mississippi with him. Gene Hackman is a former cop turned agent who is a native of Mississippi and understands the games one has to play to get at the truth.

A love story is thrown in that could probably have been left out, but it does serve to show that not everyone in Philadelphia was a racist and that there were people born there who would abhor what happened to the three civil rights workers.

One detail in the movie that was true was the hiring of mob enforcers by the FBI to intimidate members of the Klan or people close to the Klan to get information.

Howard Ball, in Murder in Mississippi, goes into quite a bit of legal detail about the effort to bring 18 Klansmen to trial for “conspiracy to violate the civil rights” of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. It took three years of legal wrangling, including a trip to the US Supreme Court, to get to trial. Seven of the 18 were found guilty, including Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers and Deputy Sheriff Ray Price. Preacher Ray Killen, who spent the eight hours of June 21, 1964, organizing the killing party, was not convicted because of a hung jury; a female juror said she could never convict a man of the cloth.

Most of the seven men were out of jail within six years, but Sam Bowers would return to a penitentiary for life for the 1965 murder of NAACP field worker Vernon Dahmer Jr. Wayne Roberts, who was fingered as the actual shooter, served the full ten years of his sentence.

Both Mr. Ball and the authors of We Are Not Afraid relate the anecdote that Roberts was unable to understand or appreciate the last words Mickey Schwerner ever said. Just before shooting him, Roberts said to him, “Are you that nigger-lover?” Schwerner replied, “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

As a well-trained CORE employee, Schwerner was trying to engage the enemy right up to the end.


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