All eyes are on Iran as young people struggle for basic freedoms: to assemble, to speak freely, to participate in civil society regardless of gender. It’s a struggle not special to Iran. For some Americans, winning those rights is within recent memory. And when I was a young man, I had contemporaries who didn’t live to see it. In the historic Freedom Summer of 1964, 45 five years ago today, three of them — James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old white anthropology student from New York, and Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old white social worker and organizer for the Congress for Racial Equality from New York — died in the struggle:
The three men had just finished a week-long training on the campus of Western College for Women (now part of Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio) regarding strategies on how to register blacks to vote.
After getting a haircut from a black barber in Meridian, the three men headed to Longdale, Mississippi, 50 miles away in Neshoba County, in order to inspect the ruins of Mount Zion United Methodist Church. The church, a meeting place for civil rights groups, had been burned just five days earlier.
Aware that their station wagon’s license number had been given to members of the notorious Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan, before leaving Meridian they informed other Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) workers of their plans and set check-in times in accordance with standard security procedures. Late that afternoon, Neshoba County deputy Cecil Price ? himself a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan ? 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.”
Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were all 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. During the hours they were held incommunicado in jail, Price notified his Klan associates who assembled and planned how to kill the three civil rights workers.
While awaiting their release, the men were given a dinner of spoonbread, green peas, potatoes and salad. When the Klan ambush was set up on the road back to Meridian, Chaney was fined $20, and the three men were ordered to leave the county. Price followed them to the edge of town, and then pulled them over with his police siren. He held them until the Klan murder squad arrived. They were taken to an isolated spot where James Chaney was beaten and all three were shot to death. Their car was driven into Bogue Chitto swamp and set on fire, and their bodies buried in an earthen dam. In June 2000 the autopsy report that had been previously witheld from the 1967 trial was released. The report stated Chaney had a left arm broken in one place, a right arm broken in two places, “a marked disruption” of the left elbow joint and may also have suffered trauma to the groin area. A pathologist who examined the bodies at the families request following their autopsies noted Chaney also had a broken jaw and a crushed right shoulder which were not mentioned in the autopsy report. (Wikipedia entry)
Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner died on the road to the next campaign. That road now runs through Tehran. As I watch, my memories go back 45 years. And on this day, those three are on my mind:
Artists: Kim Harris and the Magpies, song by Pete Seeger