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That same year, two young black men, Henry Hezekiah Dee, a civil rights activist, and his friend Charles Eddie Moore went missing in May, from Roxie, Mississippi. Their beaten bodies were found in a river, bound to an engine block and railroad rails. The Ku Klux Klan was suspected in both these killings; the Klan was outspoken in their opposition to the reversal of Jim Crow laws and equal rights for African Americans.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were members of the Council of Federated Organizations, a group effort organized by, among others, the NAACP. COFO’s goal was to educate African Americans about voting, register them to vote and help them then register others. COFO volunteers were trained, and traveled all over the South, meeting up with other men and women dedicated to voting rights for African Americans.
The events of June 21st that led to the deaths of these three young men were nothing new in Mississippi. The Klan refused to relinquish its hold on the South, and having members in law enforcement guaranteed that their reign of terror went practically unchecked. People, white and black, were too afraid to talk, to afraid to fight back against the tyranny of the Ku Klux Klan.
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner discovered the license plate of their car had been given to members of both the White Citizen’s Council and the Ku Klux Klan.They decided to head into Philadelphia to inspect the remains of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, a meeting place for civil rights activists that been burned only 5 days earlier. The three young men spoke with COFO organizers, giving them locations and check-in spots, letting the teams know exactly where they were.
Later that afternoon, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a member of the Klan, pulled over a blue station wagon driven by James Chaney. Price arrested Chaney for “driving 35 miles per hour over the speed limit.” He also arrested Goodman and Schwerner for “investigation,” and took all three men back to the county jail. At no time were they allowed a phone call, and when COFO team members called the Neshoba county jail, the secretary was instructed by Price to tell COFO the three men were not there. During the time Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were held, Price notified Edgar Ray Killen that the men were being held and no one knew where they were. Killen contacted other Klan members and plotted the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwermer.
After the Klan ambush was set in place, Price let the three civil rights workers go, fining Chaney $20 and telling them to get out of town. On their way out of town, Price pulled them over again, siren blazing, and held them on the side of the road until the Klan murder squad arrived. The Ku Klux Klan members took the three young men to an isolated spot, shot Goodman and Schwerner and beat Chaney before shooting him to death. The Klansmen drove the COFO car into Bogue Chitto Swamp, setting it on fire. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were buried in an earthen dam at the Old Jolly Farm. Less than a month later, the Neshoba CountyFair opened. From We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi:
“The 1964 Neshoba County Fair, ‘Mississippi’s Giant House Party,’ opened as scheduled on August 10. The rambling fairgrounds were located on Highway 21, only a few miles from the Old Jolly Farm, where the civil rights workers’ bodies had been recovered the week before, and the event was unusually tense and subdued. Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, the popular choice for most Neshobans, cancelled a planned appearance, saying he was unable to work it into his schedule. Even George Wallace found an excuse to stay away from the fair-traditionally an obligatory stop for for politicians courting Mississippi’s vote.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. said this about Philadelphia, Mississippi, on the second anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwermer:
“This is a terrible town, the worst I’ve ever seen. There is a complete reign of terror here.”
Apathy towards voting by Americans must stop. These three young men, and so may others, died so African Americans could vote. The new voter suppression laws being introduced by Republican politicians hearken back to a time when blacks, women and the poor were seen as second-class citizens. And each time a person says “I’m not going to vote,” I remember the photo below. You don’t get to do that, America, you are not allowed to look at the sacrifices made by so many and say “I don’t care.”
Thank you to Wikipedia and the Southern Poverty Law Center for contributions to this article. The photo above was created by Jay Branscomb and used with his permission.