From the sedulous to the surreal in cultural context

“Reenacting the Wrong Side of the Mississippi Freedom Summer”

This past weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of the heinous murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner near Philadelphia, Mississippi during the evening of June 21-22, 1964. This is a brief review of the two weeks surrounding that crime through the eyes of Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Claude Sitton, an Atlanta native and Emory University graduate, whose reports in The New York Times first presented this tragedy to a national audience.  Sitton offers an important lens through which to view this event because his “specials to the Times” reached an international audience and brought the Freedom Summer into the homes of millions. Moreover, “his phone number,” according to Pulitzer Prize winning historians Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, “would be carried protectively in the wallets of civil rights workers who saw him, and the power of his byline, as their best hope for survival.”[1] Rather than recapitulating a full account of the murders, a look at Sitton’s coverage provides a brief, poignant rumination on a tragic turning point.

3 Missing

This is not simply another maudlin memorial about the ghosts of Mississippi. Rather, it is a clarion call because past is truly prologue, especially in conservative politics in the Deep South where, according to Rachel Maddow, folks are busy “reenacting the wrong side of the Mississippi Freedom Summer.”[2] The Right has launched an all-out war on voting rights, especially in the wake of the June 2013 SCOTUS decision to overturn Section 4(b) of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the murder of Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner at least partially inspired. The Brennan Center for Justice’s Wendy Weiser and Erik Opsal lament that “voters in nearly half the country could find it harder to cast a ballot in the 2014 midterm election than they did in 2010.”[3]

In a June 17, 1964 special to the Times, Sitton informed his national audience that civil rights workers then making final preparations in Oxford, Ohio to descend upon Mississippi had been warned by James Forman, executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). “I may be killed,” Forman cautioned, “and you may be killed … [and] if you recognize that, the question of whether we’re put in jail will become very, very minute.”[4]

This admonitory theme continued in Sitton’s column of the nineteenth. “If you think you’re going to Mississippi just for a little summer pastime, just put it out of your mind,” one of Mississippi’s four black lawyers R. Jess Brown advised, “for they mean business. No question about that. They’ll arrest anybody.” He solemnly added that arguing with authorities in the Magnolia State would likely “invite that club on your head.”[5] One SNCC official added: “They take you to jail, strip you, lay you on the floor and beat you until you’re almost dead.” Another presented the unique impact women activists should expect to endure: “The major problem encountered by white women,” Sandra Hayden noted, “is the psychological strain of knowing that you endanger the people you are around.”[6]

That same day, a Department of Justice official both praised and angered the young volunteers when he spoke to them prior to their departure for Mississippi. Although he acknowledged his admiration for their sacrifices and declared them “heroes,” deputy chief John Doar drew their ire when he cautioned them: “there is no federal police [in Mississippi] to protect them.”[7] Accordingly, each activist had been provided with a “handbook for political programs” which provided numerous safety suggestions, including:

  • Know all the roads in and out of town.
  • Know the location of sanctuaries and safe homes in the county.
  • Make arrangements for regular checks with the Jackson office and/or the county office of the campaign.
  • Decide whether night or day is preferable.

Admonitions aside, the first wave, including Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, (200 of an ultimate force of 1,000) of students began their southward trek on the nineteenth with three specific goals – to increase voter registration, to organize freedom schools, and to build community centers. According to Sitton ,“no more than 28,000 of the state’s 915,722 Negroes, who make up 42 per cent of the population, are on the voting rolls.”[8]

The project had “aroused [anticipatory] fear and tension” in the state and a distinct increase in racial violence preceded the arrival of these volunteers, including the burning of a black church near the town of Philadelphia.[9] A crack in that pressure valve appeared upon the arrival of the vanguard of these young activists, who had been greeted with “hostility” and “arrests.” On June 21, Sitton provided a few details of two comparatively innocuous incidents that, in hindsight, presaged the famous “Mississippi Burning” case.

The first involved the arrest of twenty-year-old black activist James Robert Brown, of Itta Bena, for “reckless driving.” Brown had, according to state patrolman Webb Brunt, “crossed the yellow line three times on U.S. Highway 82 … in both Choctaw and adjoining Webster County.” Of course, Brown’s real sin had been piloting a vehicle comprised of biracial passengers as evidenced by Brown’s complaint that he had been continuously followed and stalked by state troopers since he crossed the state line. In any event, Brown received his release from the Choctaw County Jail later that day on $50 bond. The second episode seems to have been a continuation of the first and involved a marauding group of whites, “some armed with guns and knives,” who cornered and “then spat upon, curved and threatened another youth among the five persons riding with Mr. Brown.”[10] Temporary arrests, verbal harassment, and even physical intimidation had been par for the course in the Deep South, but what happened next was something altogether different – at least in part.

Sitton’s next column (June 23) announced that the pressure valve had fully burst:


“Three workers in a day-old civil rights campaign in Mississippi were reported missing today after their release from jail here last night,” Sitton wrote. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were arrested on June 21, 1964, for “speeding.” The trio was then held at the Neshoba County jail for four hours while local authorities and Ku Klux Klan leaders plotted their demise. With the scheme fully concocted, the activists were released and, in short order, executed.[11]

FBI Missing

What made these murders especially notable was the death of two white men. R. Jess Brown, the black Mississippi lawyer, warned the white activists: “You’re going to be classified into two groups in Mississippi: niggers and nigger-lovers. And they’re tougher on nigger-lovers.”[12] Writing in 2013, the late Maya Angelou touched on this theme.

“The murders … rocked me to the core of my very being.” “Lynchings were not unusual. And they were legal, as far as we could see … but I was not used to white men killing white men because of black men.” “So those murders in 1964 were shocking. And I felt for the mothers of the white boys. You see, the mother of a black boy knows that when he leaves home, she may never see him again, no matter where. But the white mother didn’t know that.” “Those three young men … had the courage to go to the lion’s den and try to scrub the lion’s teeth … [they] are unmitigated heroes, so we have to lift them up and show them to the world.[13]

On June 24, Sitton informed the nation that the activists’ automobile, whose license plate “had been included on lists circulated recently by the segregationist Citizens Council” was “found burned.”[14] The next day’s column flatly stated: “virtually all hope faded today for the lives of the three civil rights workers” as one F.B.I. agent admitted, “we’re now looking for bodies.”[15] 108 U.S. Navy divers arrived on the twenty-sixth to scour a “rural area of farms, pine forest and swampland.” A local white businessman bemoaned the arrival of the Naval team, suggesting President Lyndon Johnson “send them to Cuba.” A black farmer interviewed by Sitton, trembled: “We’re scared … we’re staying inside.”[16]

Incessant updates on the search for the missing workers hallmarked Sitton’s columns for the ensuing days and weeks as racial tensions in Mississippi escalated. “Many whites and Negroes are armed,” he wrote on June 28, as many black churches and homes have been bombed in the past two weeks.”[17] Yet the search dragged on through July and into August. Ultimately, the search and the vigil for the activists would last 44 days, a period during which Andrew Goodman’s mother “didn’t sleep at all.”[18]

The mystery and the fear of the unknown came to a sudden end on August 4 as F.B.I. “agents recovered the bodies from a newly erected earthen dam in a thickly wooded area.”[19] Official confirmation of the identities of those bodies would not come until the next day.[20] Americans learned on August 7 that the deaths of the three volunteers had been “swift” as the “known evidence indicates that [they were] executed.”[21]

 Bodies Found

The next day’s column brought news of the report of Dr. David M. Spain, a former medical examiner from New York, who had been brought in at the request of Fannie Lee Chaney (pictured below, with Ben Chaney), James’ mother. According to Sitton, “Mrs. Chaney wanted to be absolutely certain that all the information which could be gained from an examination of the body of her son had, in fact, been learned.” The information Dr. Spain gleaned from her sons’ corpse was that he “had been subjected to an ‘inhuman beating.’”[22] The pathologist added: “in my extensive experience of 25 years as a [medical examiner], I have never witnessed bones so severely shattered, except in … accidents such as airplane crashes.”[23]

Fannie Lee and Ben Chaney

The subsequent story of the search for justice has been oft told, but the following may be helpful to those yet unacquainted. The state of Mississippi failed to bring murder charges in this case, but the federal government indicted ten men in 1967 for conspiring to deprive the activists of their civil rights. Of the ten, only seven were convicted, including Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, who served six years in prison. He died in 2001 “when he fell from a lift at an equipment rental store in Philadelphia, Mississippi.”[24]

In his final New York Times column about James Chaney on August 10, Claude Sitton tersely noted: “James E. Chaney, 21, was buried in Meridian.”[27]  Such an abrupt and dispassionate conclusion, however, is not at all appropriate.  On August 7, 1964, at the First Union Baptist Church in Meridian, family, friends, and strangers paid their final respects to James Chaney. The Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) chief Mississippi field officer, Dave Dennis (pictured below) delivered an impassioned, gut-wrenching eulogy for the slain civil rights worker. “Dennis eloquently fuses the salvation of the Mississippi movement,” write Davis Houck and David Dixon, “with the salvation of his listeners’ souls.”[28]


A partial transcription of the eulogy is provided below and accompanies the video footage of that moving moment.

I feel that he’s got his freedom and we’re still fighting for it. But what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi, but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, those who do care but don’t have the guts enough to sign up for it, and those people who are busy up in Washington and other places using my freedom and my life to play politics with. That includes the President on down to the governor of the state of Mississippi. In my opinion, as I stand here, I not only blame the people who pulled the trigger or did the beating or dug the hole with the shovel, I bury the peace … (inaudible). But I blame the people in Washington, DC and on down in the state of Mississippi for what happened just as much as I blame those who pulled the trigger.

 See, I know what’s going to happen. I feel that even if they find the people who killed those guys in … (inaudible), you got to come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury or they come, their aunts, their uncles. And I know what they’re going to say, not guilty because no one started pulling the trigger. I’m tired of that.

Another thing that makes me even tireder, though, that is the fact that we as people here in the state and the country are allowing this to continue to happen, even us black folk. So I look at the young kids here, that’s something else that I grieve about. And little Ben Chaney here and the other ones like him around in this audience. When you want someone to baby-sit … (inaudible) black mammy to hold her baby. And as long as he can do that, he can sit down beside me, he can watch me go up there and register to vote, and he can watch me take some … (inaudible) the garbage in this state and he can sit down as I rule over him just as he’s ruled over me for years. This is our country, too. We didn’t have to come here, and they brought us over here.

I have been approached by the people of my national office at CORE, and that is to make sure that this speech that’s given is calm, they don’t want a lot of, you know, things stirred up and everything else like that. And I’d agreed to do that. And I said, “Okay, fine, that’s good.” Then when I got up there and I looked out there and I saw little Ben Chaney, things just sort of snapped and I was in a fantasy world, to be sitting up here talking about things are going to get better and we should do it in an easy manner in nonviolence and stuff like that because this country, you cannot make a man change by speaking a foreign language, he doesn’t understand what you’re talking about. This country operated then, and still operates, on violence. I mean, as you’ve said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that’s what we respect.

Greg Brooking received a Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University in 2013.  He teaches at Kennesaw State University.  Follow him on Twitter at @gregbrooking 

[1] Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (New York, 2006), 191.

[2] The Rachel Maddow Show, June 23, 2014, MSNBC.

[3]Wendy R. Weiser and Erik Opsal, “The State of Voting in 2014,” Brennan Center for Justice, (June 17, 2014).

[4] Claude Sitton, “Students Briefed on Peril in South,” New York Times, June 17, 1964.

[5] Sitton, “Students Warned on Southern Law,” New York Times, June 19, 1964.

[6] Sitton, “Rights Campaigners Off for Mississippi,” New York Times, June 21, 1964.

[7] Sitton, “U.S. Official Warns Mississippi-Bound Students,” New York Times, June 20, 1964. Regarding the issue of protecting the activists see, Sitton, “Justice Department Criticized for not Guarding Rights Aides,” New York Times, July 20, 1964.

[8] Sitton, “Rights Campaigners Off for Mississippi,” New York Times, June 21, 1964 and Sitton, “200 in Mississippi for Rights Drive,” New York Times, June 22, 1964.

[9] Sitton, “200 in Mississippi for Rights Drive,” New York Times, June 22, 1964.

[10] Sitton, “200 in Mississippi for Rights Drive,” New York Times, June 22, 1964.

[11] For the most accessible monograph of this murder see, Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (New York, 1988). Although this work is not without some serious flaws, the authors’ coverage of this specific crime is well worth the read.

[12] Sitton, “Students Warned on Southern Law,” New York Times, June 19, 1964. The Times published a letter to the editor in early July which, in a way, echoed these sentiments. See John Hayes Pritchard, Jr., “Feeling in Mississippi: Basic Antagonism is Said to be Against Students as “Invaders,” New York Times, July 2, 1964.

[13] Maya Angelou, My Mantelpiece: A Memoir of Social Justice, by Carolyn Goodman and Brad Herzog (New York, 2013), preface.

[14] Sitton, “Tip Leads to Auto,” New York Times, June 24, 1964.

[15] Sitton, “Hope for 3 Wanes as Dulles Opens Mississippi Talks,” New York Times, June 25, 1964.

[16] Sitton, “First 100 Sailors Comb Swamp Area Where Auto of 3 Missing Youths Was Found,” New York Times, June 26, 1964. The number of sailors involved in the search soon exceeded 400. See Sitton, “400 Sailors Hunt 3 in Mississippi,” New York Times, July 1, 1964.

[17] Sitton, “Mississippi Drags River in Search for Rights Aides,” New York Times, June 28, 1964. For additional reports of violence against activists see, Sitton, “Vote Workers Hurt in Mississippi Blast,” New York Times, July 9, 1964 and Sitton, “Negro is Shot by Sniper,” New York Times, July 8, 1964.

[18] “One On 1 Profile: Carolyn Goodman, Mother of Slain Civil Rights Activist,” (June 16, 2014).

[19] Sitton, “Graves at a Dam,” New York Times, August 5, 1964.

[20] Sitton, “Experts Identify Mississippi Bodies as Rights Aides’,” New York Times, August 6, 1964.

[21] Sitton, “Mississippi Rights Slaying is Being Reconstructed – Arrests Awaited,” New York Times, August 7, 1964.

[22] Sitton, “Chaney was Given a Brutal Beating,” New York Times, August 8, 1964.

[23] Sitton, “Arrests Awaited by Mississippians,” New York Times, August 9, 1964.

[24] David Stout, “Cecil Price, 63, Deputy Guilty in Killing of 3 Rights Workers,” New York Times, May 9, 2001.

[27] Sitton, “F.B.I. Builds Case in Slaying of 3,” New York Times, August 10, 1964.

[28] For the quote plus a full transcript of the speech see, Davis Houck and David Dixon, Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965 (Waco, 2006), 774-784.


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