On the night of 21 June 1964 three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—disappeared in Neshoba County. Federal law enforcement officials were called in to search for the missing men. That effort and the investigation that continued after their bodies were found forty-four days later focused national attention on the county and the state. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) labeled the case “Mississippi Burning.”
Lawrence Rainey had been elected sheriff of Neshoba County in 1963. Rainey, previously a police officer in Canton and Philadelphia, had campaigned with the promise to “take care of things,” a phrase white residents of Neshoba County understood to mean preserving white supremacy. Black residents interpreted those words to mean that law enforcement officials would escalate the level of violence against black citizens. Soon after Rainey became sheriff, Cecil Price, who had worked with Rainey in Canton, was hired as a deputy and quickly gained a reputation for being hard on blacks. Within his first year on the job, two black residents were killed while Price was arresting them.
During the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, civil rights workers traveled to Mississippi from across the country to help African Americans register to vote. An umbrella organization, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), was created to coordinate actions by various civil rights groups and opened a headquarters in Meridian, near Neshoba County. On 21 June three men met at the office: Goodman, a twenty-year-old history major from Queens College in New York; Michael Schwerner, a twenty-four-year-old graduate of Cornell University; and James Chaney, a twenty-one-year-old civil rights activist from Lauderdale County. The three men left Meridian for Sandstown, a community in eastern Neshoba County, where the Mount Zion Church had recently been burned because it was to be the home of a freedom school. Schwerner told others at the office that if he, Goodman, and Chaney were not back by 4:00 p.m., COFO should “start trying to locate us.”
After visiting the church, the activists got into their car and decided to drive back to Meridian via Philadelphia, which they thought would be the fastest route. However, their station wagon got a flat tire near Philadelphia, and Deputy Price stopped the vehicle at around 3:00. He arrested Chaney, the driver, for speeding and held Schwerner and Goodman for questioning. Price released the men from jail at about 10:30 that night. COFO leaders had already begun to search, but when they called the Neshoba County Jail, they were falsely told that Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were not there.
On 22 June COFO told the media about the missing men, sparking demands for a federal effort to find them. The FBI sent special agent John Proctor into Neshoba County to see if local law enforcement was involved in the disappearance. Proctor initially found no evidence of illegal activity on the part of local law enforcement, and white Neshoba residents began claiming that COFO had filed the missing persons’ case to gain sympathy and financial support. However, within forty-eight hours Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner’s station wagon was found in a swamp about twenty-seven miles from where Price told the FBI he had last seen the vehicle.
Over the next six weeks, 150 FBI agents scoured Mississippi for the men. US Navy divers brought in to assist the effort found the bodies of eight other African Americans—three civil rights activists, plus five men who were never identified. On 4 August FBI agents found the bodies of the three missing men inside an earthen dam in the southwestern corner of Neshoba County.
While Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were being held in the Neshoba County Jail, Klansmen had been assembling. As the three activists attempted to leave the county after their release from the jail, Price stopped them again after a high-speed chase, and Klansmen took them to an isolated area, tortured Chaney, shot all three men, and buried them in the dam. Motivated by a large reward offered by the FBI, one of the conspirators had told agents where the bodies could be found.
Several months later, after Mississippi officials showed little interest in prosecuting the perpetrators, the federal government charged eighteen men with conspiring to violate Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner’s civil rights. Seven were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years. Deputy Price and Sam Bowers, imperial wizard of the White Knights of the East Mississippi Ku Klux Klan, received the longest sentences, though no one served more than six years. Eight defendants, including Sheriff Rainey, were acquitted, and the jury hung on the guilt or innocence of three others, including Edgar Ray Killen.
After the 1967 election, Philadelphia’s board of aldermen experienced a complete turnover, Rainey and Price left law enforcement, and school integration in Neshoba County occurred smoothly and without major incident. Whites generally sought to put the case into the past and avoid revisiting it. Nevertheless, memories lingered, and a 1988 film, Mississippi Burning, offered a fictionalized version of the events. Inspired by the movie, Jackson Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell began looking into various civil rights–era cold cases, and his work, along with that of a biracial local group known as the Philadelphia Coalition, and an Illinois high school teacher and three of his students, led the State of Mississippi to bring charges against Killen. Although the jury declined to convict him of murder, on 21 June 2005, exactly forty-one years after the crime, it did find him guilty on three counts of manslaughter for recruiting the mob that carried out the killings. He received the maximum punishment on each count—twenty years imprisonment.
- Howard Ball, Murder in Mississippi: United States v. Price and the Struggle for Civil Rights (2004)
- Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (2006)
- William Bradford Huie, Three Lives for Mississippi (1965, repr., 2000)
- Florence Mars, Witness in Philadelphia (1977)
- Renee Romano, Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders (2017)