Cover Story: A Season for Justice

Murdered civil rights workers trained in Oxford might get justice after 40 years

A Season For Justice

It was the summer of '64. Rick Momeyer had just graduated from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and, for the first summer since he started college, didn't have to work.

Two years earlier Momeyer had spent a semester at Fisk University, where he took part in sit-ins in Nashville, Tenn., with civil rights activist John Lewis. Now Lewis was asking him to take part in the next big event of the civil rights movement, something called the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project.

Two waves of volunteers, mostly Northern white college students, would descend upon Mississippi to register blacks to vote and set up "Freedom Schools" where they would try to teach black Mississippians to read, write and demand their constitutional rights.

Momeyer had already decided to spend that summer as a paid field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), registering black voters in Georgia on behalf of black congressional candidate C.B. King.

But before going down to Georgia, Momeyer agreed to join Lewis on the campus of the former Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, to train volunteers in the tactics of nonviolence.

Momeyer, now a philosophy professor at Miami University, arrived in Oxford for the first time on Sunday, June 21, 1964, as a part of the second wave of the project.

The day before, the first wave had left Ohio for Mississippi, among them Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and their new recruit, Andy Goodman. Schwerner and Chaney hadn't expected to leave Ohio so early, but a bombed-out church in Longdale, Miss., the site of a proposed Freedom School, demanded their attention.

So Schwerner and Goodman, white New Yorkers, and Chaney, a black man from Meridian, Miss., left Oxford in the early morning hours of Saturday, June 20.

On Monday morning, program director Bob Moses was addressing the students at the Western College when he was taken aside and told that Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman had been missing for 14 hours.

"Moses told us that, in Mississippi, civil rights workers didn't just go missing and reappear days later," Momeyer recalls. "(Moses said,) 'Our brothers were murdered, probably by the Ku Klux Klan, and we should deal with it.' "

The three were indeed murdered, outside Philadelphia, Miss. After a 44-day manhunt, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam. Three years later, 19 reputed members of the KKK were brought to trial in federal courts, with seven of them convicted on the charge of violating the civil rights of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. But the state of Mississippi refused to try the Klansmen for murder, and no one was ever brought to trial for the murders of the three civil rights workers.

Forty years later, Momeyer and others affected by the events of 1964 are still waiting for justice. As 2005 begins, their wait could soon be coming to an end.

'Take your own path'
At Western College in 1964, the tenor of the training sessions changed abruptly after Moses' announcement.

"Any romantic notions about helping Negroes were disabused," Momeyer says. "Any idea that their privilege would protect them was erased."

Most of the volunteers had come from upper-middle-class, liberal homes in the Northeast, far removed from the Jim Crow South. Many were the sons and daughters of lawyers, judges and corporate executives.

"Few had any real understanding of how life was like for blacks in Mississippi," Momeyer says. "This was their first inkling of how their life would be like as civil rights workers."

Steve Schwerner, the brother of Mickey Schwerner, says a large fraction of the country still believed the civil rights movement was a radical cause.

"They couldn't possibly believe these students were for real," he says. "They thought that they had been duped by others."

Mickey Schwerner wasn't a volunteer at Western College but a paid field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), stationed in Meridian, Miss. A few years earlier he had devoted his life to social justice and had the full support of his family in Pelham, N.Y., just north of New York City.

Now 67 years old and retired as a professor from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Steve Schwerner says he joined Mickey in his early demonstrations in New York, protesting the construction of public housing projects built mostly for blacks and Puerto Ricans but built by only whites.

"He was much more courageous than I was," Schwerner says. "In Manhattan, he'd lie in front of bulldozers."

Steve Schwerner didn't follow his brother as he took his mission south, first to Maryland, where in 1963 Mickey was arrested for his part in sit-ins, then to Mississippi, where in January 1964 he and his wife, Rita, became full-time workers for CORE.

Twenty-year-old Andy Goodman was one of those who came to Oxford in June 1964 as a volunteer. His mother, Carolyn, recalls how Andy felt called to go down South, that people were needed there. She says she and her husband didn't try to stop their son or talk him out of it. They had brought him up in a household opposed to the baseless attacks of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and it was only natural for him to wish to pursue civil rights.

"His father told him, 'You know what this world's about, but you have to take your own path,' " she says from her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Andy grew up. "It was with a heavy heart, but that's what he did."

Carolyn Goodman says Andy felt he was going down to Mississippi to uphold the Constitution. Yet their training warned them otherwise.

"They were taught at Oxford to forget the Constitution," Schwerner says. "They were told they were going to a place with no laws."

At Western College that June, volunteers learned how to resist the violence of a mob.

"We showed them how to protect themselves, to fold up, cover their head, neck and genitals," Momeyer says. "And we showed them the importance of nonviolence, both tactically and philosophically."

No matter how bad the violence got, volunteers were to meet it with nonviolence, taking away any justification for the mob or the cops to strike them.

Arthur Miller, the retired president of the Oxford Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wasn't surprised when he heard something had happened to Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Miller and other local NAACP members had put up money for volunteers to go to Mississippi.

"I was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, during World War II, so I knew exactly what they were going into," he says.

Once during the war Miller was sitting in the white waiting room of the Greyhound station in Columbus, Ga., when police were called. Another black man had taken a seat at the front of a bus and refused to move. A policeman shot the man right there, in the head, Miller says.

Another time, after a football game between two black colleges, a black soldier began directing traffic, trying to clear cars faster. Despite the nearly all-black crowd, white cops were assigned to direct the traffic.

"They said, 'He's trying to do our job; we'd better stop him,' and they opened up their guns at him, shot boom-boom-boom," Miller says. "They shot him dead."

Miller says there was no way he was going down South in 1964, but he came to the training sessions in Oxford every day to observe and lend his support.

"Mississippi was the worst offender of African-American rights," he says. "If (civil rights workers) broke the hold there, it would enhance the whole country. That's the reason the Council of Churches provided the opportunity. And kids from all over the nation came here to train."

If all had gone well that summer, Miller says, the world would never have known about Freedom Summer.

"But when two white kids were murdered, the whole world paid attention, and the FBI got involved," he says.

But even with the FBI in the picture, no one was ever convicted of the three murders, and no one spent long behind bars for crimes against the men.

In 1967 the federal government, led by special prosecutor John Doar, convicted seven men of violating the civil rights of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, handing them sentences that ranged from three to 10 years in federal prison. The group included Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price and Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. None of the seven served his full sentence.

In 1999, following mounting pressure and the convictions of Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers and Bowers on another civil rights-era murder charge, Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, a Democrat, reopened the case of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.

In May 2001, Deputy Price died, having fallen from a tractor.

Moore told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger at the time, "If he had been a defendant, he would have been a principal defendant. If he had been a witness, he would have been our best witness. Either way, his death is a tragic blow to our case."

Last year Mississippi got a new attorney general, Democrat Jim Hood, who took up the mantle and promised action. On Jan. 7, after 12 months in office, Hood made good on the beginnings of that promise, as a grand jury indicted Edgar Ray Killen, a part-time preacher and alleged mastermind of the conspiracy, on three counts of murder.

News spread rapidly around the country, landing on the front page of many papers.

"The investigation reached a certain point where we had as much material as we were going to get and need to bring an indictment and be successful," says Assistant Attorney General Jacob Ray.

'State terrorism'
Killen's arrest produced varying reactions in those most affected by the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, with one recurring theme: It's a good start, but more still needs to be done.

"Well, it's about time; I mean, it certainly is time," says Carolyn Goodman. "It's 40 years and the man's been running around."

Momeyer, who had been skeptical the case would even go this far, sees the indictment as only a first step.

"I think it a good thing and a hopeful sign that Killen has been indicted," he says. "But I don't think it is nearly enough. There are more culprits and higher authorities still being protected from exposure, and justice requires their prosecution as well. There is much to hope for but much as well to still be concerned about."

Schwerner has cared less about prosecuting the individuals responsible than shedding some serious light on the situation in which his brother, Chaney and Goodman found themselves in 1964 Mississippi.

"I'm interested in what the role of the Justice Department and the FBI was in not only letting the Mississippi police do nothing but also be on the side of the Klan," Schwerner says. "The problem for me is that it was not a handful of people who were responsible for this. It was state-sanctioned terrorism; in fact, it was supported."

Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James Chaney, has returned to his original suspicions that the investigation was no more than a "sham."

"My initial reaction was optimism, even if cautious optimism, but why no one else?" he says. "It comes out to be a charade. He's not the only one, and he's just being used as a fall guy to protect the rich and powerful."

Chaney would like to see the FBI head the investigation, not the Mississippi Attorney General's office. He also thinks the state is going to go after only Killen and Bowers and call the case closed.

"They're really trying to pull the wool over our eyes, but fortunately we are aware of it," Chaney says.

Chaney, 52, has been fighting for civil rights ever since he was a kid, he says, when he used to follow his brother and Mickey Schwerner around Meridian. Today he lives in New York, where he runs the James Earl Chaney Foundation.

Responding to pressure from Chaney's group and others, some members of the U.S. Congress have pushed for federal attention to the murders as the state of Mississippi has conducted its investigation.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) put forth a resolution last June calling for U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Department of Justice to investigate the murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman and report their findings to Congress.

"It brings the resources of the federal government to bear, and that'll be significant," says Lanier Avant, a spokesman for Thompson.

Twenty-five members of the Black Congressional Caucus signed off on the resolution, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), but the bill never made it to the floor.

Avant says Thompson and others will try again this year in the new Congress. But with the Republicans in firm control, there's no telling when or if the resolution will be called up for a vote.

Ray says the investigation continues in his office to gather evidence against others who could be implicated in the murders.

"If we are able to get more information, we will pursue more (defendants)," he says. "If information leads to the other people involved, we will certainly bring them to justice."

Carolyn Goodman is optimistic that the attention placed on Killen will lead to more arrests.

"The eyes of the world are on them right now," she says. "That paper (The New York Times) gets all over the world, and people are going to make demands."

Mississippi 8th Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon released Killen Jan. 12 on $250,000 bail.

In the 1967 federal verdict, Killen's trial ended in a hung jury. His murder trial is scheduled for April 18.

A changed South
For Miller, changes in the Deep South were felt as early as 1969. That year he attended an NAACP gathering in Jackson with his wife, Alice, who is white. This was only two years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Mississippi law that said miscegenation — the marriage of people of different races — was a crime.

"I ate in a restaurant no Negro had ever eaten in," Miller says. "I stayed in a Holiday Inn no Negro had ever stayed in."

Now 83, he doesn't think most white people in Mississippi are bad. He just thinks they wanted to follow the law, which was bad, and they went along with ringleaders who were bad.

"When laws said this shouldn't happen, they didn't have to go along with bad people, and things changed," Miller says.

In 1989 Steve Schwerner and Mickey's widow, Rita, returned to Mississippi for the 25th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Steve Schwerner says the most shocking thing for Rita was to see black state troopers.

"Politically, the state has changed dramatically," he says. "Mississippi has the largest number of black state legislators in the country. Socially, the state has changed significantly. But economically, it has changed little. Everything is controlled by the same small group of white men as before, and it is still the poorest state in the nation."

Schwerner compares the situation to what civil rights leader Malcolm X once said about New York: "In Harlem, blacks had always had the right to vote, and segregation was illegal. But it still exists; the right to vote doesn't do a damn bit of difference."

Schwerner says gaining suffrage and eliminating Jim Crow laws were necessary for progress, but the next step is how to really integrate the economy.

Chaney says Mississippi still has a long way to go before blacks will be on an even playing field with whites.

"Over the past 30 years, there have been a lot of hangings that have taken place, though they've been ruled 'suicides,' " he says. "Many people think it's a continuation of the structure that was in place in the '60s."

He concedes Mississippi has many black elected officials but says these officials are "impotent" because most of their campaign funds come from white people.

He points to the 2003 election of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a staunch supporter of the state flag's Confederate-style design, as proof the state is moving in the wrong direction.

Ray emphasizes that Hood is a progressive from a different party than Barbour and confirms that the two men have a cool relationship. The Republican governor will have no impact on Hood's pursuit of justice in the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.

Even so, Barbour said in a press release, "Like most Mississippians, I have always wanted to see the people responsible for the gruesome killing of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in 1964 brought to justice. I hope this process serves that end."

'He changed our lives'
In Oxford last September many of the veterans of Freedom Summer, who had gathered at Western College for Women in 1964, returned to the campus of Western, which is now part of Miami University. They commemorated 40 years with the reunion, lectures and presentations by those involved.

Bob Moses was on hand, as were Momeyer and Ben Chaney. Lewis gave the keynote speech.

The murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman also drew national headlines last summer when white supremacist Richard Barrett said he'd set up a booth at the Mississippi State Fair in October, hand out fliers with an "X" drawn through photographs of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman and have Killen sign autographs. Barrett was also going to ask patrons to sign a petition denouncing the attorney general's investigation of Killen.

Back at the attorney general's office, Ray says Barrett was only trying to draw attention to himself and his racist causes. Barrett never got a booth and never even contacted Killen with his plans before the story broke.

"Barrett — he doesn't understand that times have changed and his time has gone," Ray says.

In response to Barrett's ploy, the sheriff of Hinds County set up a counter-petition, supporting the murder investigation of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Soon afterward 500 students from Jackson State University, a historically black college, marched on Jackson to protest Barrett's plans.

Momeyer doesn't believe Freedom Summer dramatically altered his life. He was already involved in the movement; he had already been jailed and beaten several times. He says the way the murders affected him is harder to tell.

"It shapes your sensibility about your country, about how people live, about what's worth fighting for," he says.

Schwerner, as well, was already an adherent of the civil rights movement, though he says his brother's death gave him entrée into exclusive circles, allowing him to speak to people he otherwise wouldn't have and helping him raise money for SNCC and CORE.

For Goodman, the change was much more profound. Trained as a psychologist, she coped with the loss of her son with what are called mutual support systems. She leaned on her friends and family, and they leaned on her.

"Andy's death was a great blow to us," she says. "But we all feel, without being mystical about it, that he is still with us, because he changed our lives for the better. He made us more aware of others less fortunate than ourselves and how to help them."

Today, at 89, Goodman is the head of a foundation in her son's name and says she contributes however she can when she sees an injustice. In 1999 she marched in the protest that ensued when Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, was shot by New York City Police 41 times as he reached for his wallet. She was arrested at the protest.

"It was an issue of 'Move on' when we didn't want to move on," she says.

Fortunately, the police officers were kind. One of them told Goodman and her fellow protesters he was getting engaged and showed them pictures of his bride-to-be.

"It turned out to be a bit of a joke, but it could've been nasty under other circumstances," she says.

The legacy of 1964
Both Momeyer and Schwerner say Freedom Summer was a success not because it registered that many people to vote —it didn't — but because it pushed President Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And the Freedom Schools helped reach out to a lot of black Mississippians and let them in on what went on outside Mississippi.

Momeyer looks to Rep. Lewis as an inspiration.

"He's the living saint of the movement, proof that you can survive worse than what I survived and still believe in democracy," Momeyer says.

Goodman says her son's sacrifice helps her carry on.

"I feel strong," she says. "It was my son who did this out of choice. There are so many good people who are not acknowledged by the powers that be. I don't believe in violence; neither did Andy. Sometimes change comes slowly, but I'm doing my little part to make this country work. I'm not giving anything away. I'm just working to make it what we hope the founding fathers had in mind for this country to be, and I work at it every day, one way or another."

Today a cascade of events gathers steam surrounding the murder case of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Pressure is rising to the surface that justice might be wrought. Forty years after the three men's deaths, as Freedom Summer volunteers gathered back together and attention refocused on the case, the first murder charges have been brought against Edgar Ray Killen.

With a trial date set for Killen, charges for others could follow.

"I know that victims certainly never forget, and neither does the state of Mississippi," Hood said in a press release. "As long as I am prosecutor, I'll continue to fight for victims, and I'll never give up on a murder case."

But justice today would be largely symbolic: a vindication of the past, a righting of one of this country's great wrongs, a closing of one of this country's most compelling chapters.

In spite of all the people who are remembered — from Martin Luther King to John Lewis to Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman — most are not.

"Most of the people in the civil rights movement, nobody's going to know, people who risked everything," Schwerner says. "Really, the bulk of the movement was in the South. It was black. It was done by women. It's this unknown mass that are the true heroes of the movement — anonymous people who get together and want change." ©

Mississippi Turning?
Edgar Ray Killen, 80, is scheduled to stand trial April 18 in Philadelphia, Miss., on three counts of murder.

Although the deaths of the three civil rights workers made famous in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning occurred more than 40 years ago, the crime has never been forgotten by civil rights activists in the state. In October 2004 a march to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, demanded action in the case. In December, just weeks before a grand jury handed up indictments against Killen, the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference offered a $100,000 reward for information about the homicides.

Some have hailed the filing of murder charges as a sign that Mississippi's violent segregationist heritage has finally become a thing of the past.

The Jackson Free Press, an alternative weekly, has closely followed developments in the movement demanding prosecution for the civil rights workers' deaths. For an archive of that newspaper's reports, visit:

For an editorial in the Free Press about Killen's arrest, visit:

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