$100,000 reward for Mississippi's infamous Civil Rights murders

Amsterdam News/December 27, 2004
By Karen Juanita Carrillo

A new $100,000 reward is being offered to anyone who can provide information about Mississippi's notorious 1964 murders of Civil Rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference (MRLC) announced the reward earlier this week. Any new information - sent to the MRLC at P.O. Box 68123, Jackson, MS 39286-8123, or phoned into the Mississippi Attorney General's office at 601-359-4381 - would aid the work of the state's Attorney General Jim Hood, who has been compiling information for a case to be brought against the nine to ten still-living men who took part in the murders.

Because 2004 marked the 40th anniversary of the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner case, there has been an extra push to finally have justice served against these infamous race-based killings. Because James Chaney was an African American and a Christian, and Goodman and Schwerner were both white and Jewish, the three young men were murdered while investigating the firebombing of an African American church. Many of today's Mississippians say they feel that the unpunished Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murders give their state a racist reputation.

But Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James, thinks that some of the people behind the new push to solve the 1964 murders may want to clean up the state's reputation by deceptive means.

James E. Prince III, the grandson of the former head of the White Citizen's Council, is currently publisher and editor of the Neshoba Democrat newspaper. Ben, who directs the James Earl Chaney Foundation, said that it appears as if Prince is using his new local citizens group, the Philadelphia Coalition, to go after only the most virulent racists who took part in the murders - former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers and Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, the man said to have been the "main instigator" of the murders, who told the other Klansmen where to hide in order to capture the three young men, what to do with them once they'd been captured, and where to bury their bodies.

Convictions of Bowers and Killen could be used to promote the idea that racism no longer exists in Neshoba County, Chaney contends. But if there are to be convictions for the 1964 murders, Ben says his family would only support efforts to convict each of the still nine to ten living murderers. The problem is that some of those murderers went on to high stations in Mississippi society, and Chaney thinks that those murderers, as politically connected racists, would most likely be protected from prosecution.

"This is their desire to separate their group from the Klan," Chaney said. "They're promoting this image as if they're trying to seek justice, while in fact their true agenda is something else. "They're going to say they're seeking justice, but that's no justice there - even I know better than that. They're playing a very vicious game here; they're seriously playing a game!"

On June 16, 1964, armed members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan firebombed the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, a rural community in the notoriously KKK-infested Neshoba County. Weeks earlier, James Earl Chaney had earned the trust of church leaders and convinced them to allow Michael Schwerner, the director of the Meridian COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) office, to speak at the church. After many meetings, Chaney, Schwerner and church leaders made plans for the church to be used as a voter registration training site for Neshoba's disenfranchised Black community.

Not until one week later, June 21, 1964, did James Chaney and Michael Schwerner have a chance to investigate the ruins of the Mount Zion Church. With them was Andrew Goodman, a young Jewish volunteer from New York who was to coordinate the Neshoba County voter registration project. After investigating the church ruins and before starting their return trip to Meridian, the three Civil Rights workers visited some of the parishioners who were beaten by the Ku Klux Klan on the night of the firebombing. When they finally started out for Meridian, the three Civil Rights workers were pulled over by a Neshoba County sheriff's deputy and then turned over to more than 20 enraged members of the Ku Klux Klan. They were murdered and their bodies buried in an earthen dam. The 44-day search for their bodies made national news.

The FBI code-named the search for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner as their "MIBURN" case. After posting rewards for information in 1964, FBI agents finally received tips from local sources and found the body of Chaney buried fifteen feet deep in an earthen dam alongside the bodies of Goodman and Schwerner. Chaney's body was a "mangled mass," the Meridian Star, a local newspaper, reported at the time. The injuries, aside from the bullet holes, "could only occur in a high speed airplane crash!"

Three years later, 21 members of the local White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were charged in federal court with conspiracy and with violating the civil rights of the three young men. Only seven of those 21 men were convicted. Nine to ten of those original defendants are still alive and still living in Mississippi.

The Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner killings are part of the dramatic '60's Civil Rights history, a history that saw the violent murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Vernon Dahmer, among others. But since the state was able to bring closure to the Evers and Dahmer cases in recent years (with the convictions of Byron de la Beckwith and Sam Bowers), it is the unresolved Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner case that still damns Mississippi as a state full of virulent racists.

NOTE: James E. Prince III contacted the Ross Institute to advise that his grandfather was never head of the Citizen’s Council nor did he ever even live in Neshoba County.

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