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.


The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning Part 1


By Cynthia Pease

Mississippi was said to be the hardest nut to crack in the movement to register black voters. If a voter registration drive could succeed there, it could succeed anywhere.

Of course, this also meant that the resistance there would be fiercer than resistance elsewhere. Indeed, the Freedom Summer project of 1964 led to the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, which was responsible for numerous murders, fire bombings, beatings, and other forms of intimidation in a short period of time and making it difficult for blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests were required for blacks but not for whites, with often ridiculous questions that no one could have answered. The tests were obviously structured so that blacks would not be able to pass them. Poll taxes were also part of registering to vote, which kept poor blacks from even attempting to register.

White Citizens Councils had been the main “nonviolent” force for enforcing Jim Crow practices of segregation and denial of voting rights to blacks in Mississippi. But when word of the Freedom Summer Project to send thousands of white students (or “nigger-loving Jews and Commies” to the WCCs) to Mississippi to hold Freedom Schools and teach blacks what they needed to know to register to vote came to the ears of the white supremacists, they knew something stronger was needed.

The portrait of Sam Bowers drawn in Murder in Mississippi by Howard Ball is chilling. It may not be surprising that the name of his jukebox and vending machine business was Sambo Amusement Company. He thought of himself as a pure Christian, yet his hatred of Jews as well as blacks indicates that he never understood that Jesus was a Jew and most certainly not white as Bowers understood whiteness. Infidels were to be murdered, according to Ball, not forgiven or converted. “If it is necessary to eliminate someone, it is to be done with no malice, in complete silence, and in the manner of a Christian act,” he is quoted by Ball as saying.

Bowers’ intolerance was rewarded with being named Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK in February 1964. Between February and June, membership in the KKK grew to between 5,000 and 6,000.

Whether calling themselves the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan, white Mississippians had never been averse to using violence. Emmett Till died in Mississippi in 1955; Medger Evers of the NAACP was assassinated in 1963; Vernon Dahmer, also an NAACP official, would be burned to death by the Klan in 1965. James Meredith survived being shot in 1966 several years after he was the first black student to be enrolled at “Ole Miss”; his enrollment necessitated heavy federal protection from mobs of angry whites.

Charges have been made that the only reason the FBI investigated these murders so tirelessly was because two of the victims were white. And that may well be, but the black activists who started the Freedom Summer project were very clear that they wanted white students to go south because they knew that would draw attention to the situation. Black people had been dying left and right trying to work for civil rights, but little attention had been paid by the rest of the country. They needed leverage, and white was the leverage.

The White Citizens Council knew all about, and indeed had infiltrated, the Freedom Summer training camp in Oxford, Ohio. With the revitalized Klan growing every day, by June 1964 the time was ripe for the murders that drew the most attention in that bloody season, those of three young voter registration workers, two white and one black. Ironically, the fates of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman played out in a Mississippi town called Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.



emmett tillThe story of the lynching in 1955 of Emmett Till is both the easiest and the hardest to tell. Easy because so much has been written about it. Hard because it is so absolutely incomprehensible, so tragic, and so heart-breaking. The following comes mainly from two documentaries and Death of Innocence by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, though you cannot read a book about lynching, racism or racial violence without coming upon Emmett’s story.

Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was lynched in Money, Mississippi. He did not grow up in the South. He was raised in Argo, a black community outside Chicago where everyone knew him; indeed everyone was pretty much related to him. Though he suffered from polio as a child, he was well taken care of and survived to grow into a confident young man. Perhaps he had more responsibilities than a lot of children; he helped his single mother do the grocery shopping, cook, clean their Chicago apartment. His mother, Mamie Bradley at the time, was self-admittedly somewhat of a child herself. Her authoritarian mother had dominated her life, and Mamie had grown used to turning to her for most things. This would change in August 1955

Mamie’s first husband, Louis Till, was killed in World War II, not in action, but by the military; more about this later. She divorced her second husband, with whom she lived in Detroit while Emmett stayed behind with his grandmother. She became more independent after that, moving into Chicago proper and securing a responsible government job, but she also began to rely on Emmett’s help more and more.

When the question of Emmett going to visit his great-uncle Mose Wright in MIssissippi came up, Mamie was fearful. She made sure to caution Emmett about what life was still like in the South, where blacks were expected to move off the sidewalk if a white person was advancing toward them, to say “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and never to contradict or touch a white person, never even to look a white person in the eyes. As a parting present, she gave Emmett a ring of his father’s.

Emmett and a cousin traveled by train to their great-uncle’s cabin. Mose was a sharecropper and also known as “Preacher.” His cabin was isolated. Emmett, by all accounts, started the summer visit with all the anticipation of fun and adventure that 14-year-old boys have. He helped in the cotton fields, he went swimming and fishing, he got into scrapes when his cousins and he took Mose’s car to ride around.

One Wednesday evening, the boys took the car to go to the Bryant store, the only place for miles around where you could get candy or soda. The owner, Roy Bryant, was out of town and his young wife Carolyn was minding the store. There are different accounts of what happened next. In some way, Emmett offended Mrs. Bryant, either by touching her hand when he gave her his money (he should have just put it on the counter) or by intentionally whistling at her or even perhaps by whistling unintentionally (the polio had left him with a stutter and his mother had taught him to whistle before he spoke as a way of relaxing his mouth muscles).

Mrs. Bryant went out to her car and got a gun. The boys skedaddled. They did not tell their uncle what had happened, and Mrs. Bryant did not tell her husband until a few days later because the incident had somehow become public knowledge.

That Saturday evening Bryant and his cousin, JW Milam, went to Mose’s cabin. He testified that they knocked on the door in the middle of the night shouting for the “boy from Chicago” to come out. When he turned on the porch light, he saw guns in their hands. He also saw a third person in the shadows. They entered the cabin and found Emmett in bed and told him to get up and come with them. They took him out to their truck, from which Uncle Mose heard a woman’s voice say, “That’s him.” They put him in the truck and no one ever saw Emmett alive again.

Several days later his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan secured by barbed wire around his neck and his face unrecognizable. Though Sheriff HC Strider later testified that there was no way to even tell whether this was a white body or a black body, he immediately called the black funeral director. No autopsy was performed. The body was placed in a sealed casket and shipped to Chicago. The seal of the state of Mississippi said that the casket was not to be opened.
Against the advice and fears of the funeral home in Chicago, Mamie insisted that the casket be opened. And then she spent a horrifying time looking over every inch of Emmett’s naked body. Here’s what she saw: Emmett’s tongue was lolling outside his mouth as if it had been partially cut. One of Emmett’s eyes was missing and the other was lying on his cheek. Emmett’s nose and the top of his head had been cleaved. There was a bullet wound behind his ear. And his father’s ring was on his finger.

Somehow, Mamie Bradley found the strength to demand that Emmett be placed in a coffin with a glass lid so that the world could see what had happened to him. And the world did see. Pictures of his battered body were taken. Thousands of people filed by his coffin before the burial. The story was picked up around the world. Surely justice would be done.

After a travesty of a trial, Bryan and Milam were acquitted. Mose and Willie Reed and others who testified for the prosecution had to leave their homes and move north. A smear campaign directed at Emmett’s family came out, including the fact that Louis Till had been executed by his own side in the war. With no foundation, it was written in newspapers that his offense had been rape. Former fellow soldiers contacted Mamie and told her that Louis had been executed on a trumped-up charge, another lynching.

Not even a year after the trial, journalist William Howard Huie interviewed Milam and Bryant and extracted their confession to the lynching, though they could not now be prosecuted. Indeed, they seemed eager to confess publicly, possibly because the way they told it made 14-year-old Emmett seem like a sexual predator. The confession was published in Life magazine. Milam and Bryant claimed that Emmett had invited Carolyn Bryant to have sex, telling her that he had “had” plenty of white women in Chicago. Their intention, Bryant and Milam said, had been simply to scare him, but the more they beat him, the more defiant he became.

No one will ever know for sure what Emmett’s perceived provocation was. It doesn’t really matter. What happened to him is beyond justification. Though two men who worked to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, the Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith, had been murdered not long before Emmett’s visit, it was his death that brought the eyes of the world to bear on racial violence in the United States. Emmett has passed into the collective conscience of all those who abhor and fight against the evil of racism, and even people who don’t know his story know his name. One would have thought that this could never happen to a child again, until in the next century Trayvon Martin happened to be walking home to his father’s condo while George Zimmerman was on the prowl.