Mississippi Freedom Summer Claims Three Young Victims

Air Date: 01/01/2004
NBC News
Lester Holt
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NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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In the summer of 1963, Mississippi was a dangerous place for civil rights workers to be. When three young civil rights workers disappeared on a June night, it shocked the nation and brought new attention to voter registration in the South.

Mississippi Freedom Summer Claims Three Young Victims

BOB MOSES, in voice-over: You know, we’re going down there and trying to face the real situation that may occur – namely that there will be a mob at the courthouse.

LESTER HOLT: Organizers called it “Freedom Summer,” and its purpose was to enlist and train mostly white, northern college students as volunteers for a massive voter-registration drive in Mississippi, where only six percent of eligible blacks were actually registered to vote.

Man in Voice-Over: We are here on legitimate voter-registration business. It’s our Constitutional right to try to register; it’s our Constitutional right to come to the courthouse.

HOLT: For the most part, Freedom Summer was the idea of this man: Bob Moses, a math teacher from New York City who’d been trying, with limited success, to register black voters in Mississippi since 1961. Over the years he’d been beaten, shot at and jailed. His friends were murdered for trying to register blacks.

BOB MOSES: Here we have this whole congressional district, the majority of the people eligible to vote are blacks and hardly any of them can, you know, go to try.

Man in Voice-Over: That’s a section of the constitution of the State of Mississippi…

HOLT: In June of 1964, hundreds of idealistic college students converged on a small women’s college in Oxford, Ohio for orientation and training before being sent south. Here’s a report filed at the time by NBC’s Jack Perkins.

JACK PERKINS: Because the project these young people have come here to be trained for is unorthodox, some of the training is also unorthodox.

BOB MOSES, in archival footage: We want to get used to, used to people jeering at us, and we also want the white students who are playing the mob to get used to saying things, to calling out epithets, calling people “niggers” and “nigger lovers.”

PERKINS: James Forman, Executive Secretary of SNCC, leads this maneuver.

[STUDENT TRAINEES act as mob, shout at camera]

PERKINS: A group of students act as an angry mob. They are supposed to jeer and curse, and that’s all. But a mob, even a mob play-acting, can get out of hand.

[“Mob” shouts.]

BOB MOSES: That was very good, because you all got carried away, see. You were just supposed to yell, so you started hitting, and got out your frustration, see?

PERKINS: After a week of this, they are ready to leave – remembering a warning.

BOB MOSES, in voice-over: You’re gonna be beaten, and you’re gonna be thrown in jail. You’re gonna be cursed, spit on, and everything else.

PERKINS: With some knowledge of what will await them, but with little protection against it, they set forth for a summer in Mississippi. Jack Perkins, NBC News, Oxford, Ohio.

HOLT: One of the young men attending that training session was Andrew Goodman, a student from Queens College in New York. His mother Carolyn still remembers the day he told her he wanted to spend the summer in Mississippi.

CAROLYN GOODMAN: All we knew is he was going to go and be trained, and we gave him permission. Why? Because we couldn’t talk out of two sides of our mouths. We couldn’t say, “This is a horror,” and then say, “Well, it’s okay for other kids. And it’s certainly okay for black kids. But not for my white, middle class son. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I don’t want him to be beaten, I don’t want him to be ending up in jail,” and so on. So off he went to Ohio.

HOLT: Shortly before completing their training and heading south, a church in Neshoba County, Mississippi was burned to the ground. The news was of particular interest to two of the Ohio trainers: Michael Schwerner from New York City, and James Chaney, a native Mississippian who had helped establish a voter-registration school in that church before coming to Ohio. Within hours of hearing the news, they decided to return to Mississippi. Riding in the back seat of their car was a raw recruit, Andrew Goodman.

GOODMAN: He said, “Mom, I’m going down to Mississippi, to Neshoba, and he told me why. So I was a little nervous about that. But, um, I didn’t say anything. I just, was upset about it, because I had a feeling that something wasn’t right.

MOSES: They went into the state at the period where it was most roiled up, most dangerous. And there was no one else going in when they went in.

HOLT: After visiting the ruins of the church, the men headed back to their home office in Meridian, Mississippi. It was around four in the afternoon when the trio was spotted by a deputy sheriff just inside the city limits. He arrested them for speeding.

DEPUTY CECIL PRICE: They paid the fine and I released them, escorted them to their car.

CHET HUNTLEY: There is some mystery and some fear concerning three of the civil rights workers, two whites from New York City and a Negro from Mississippi. Police say they arrested the three men for speeding yesterday, but released them after they posted bond.

MOSES: For us, that means that they’re dead. Right? Just like that. Yes. I mean, they’re okay if they’re in jail, they’re not going to really – with all this attention, and the Justice Department calling and asking, they’re not going to kill them in jail. If they release them, then we need – we would know where they are within an hour, for sure.

HOLT: Back in Ohio, Bob Moses had little time to mourn those he assumed were dead. He felt it was imperative to discuss the situation and the risks with the students who were about to go to Mississippi.

MOSES: I just walked up and I said, “The kids are dead.” They had to absorb that, that they were really dead.

HOLT: Remarkably, Moses said, only one volunteer quit. A few days later, in Mississippi, a burned-out car was discovered in a swampy area. But with no bodies found, the families and friends of the missing men continued to hold out hope.

CAROLYN GOODMAN, in newsreel: As the parent of one of the boys who are missing, I am making this plea to all parents everywhere, particularly to the parents of Mississippi. I want to beg them to cooperate in every way possible, in the search for these three boys, and to come forward with any information of any kind which will help in the search.

HOLT: Rita Schwerner, the wife of Michael Schwerner, also spoke to the press.

RITA SCHWERNER: You know, something happened to them. They’re being held somewhere, or something happened. And uh, I am going to find the answer. If the federal authorities can do it, this is fine, but if all the federal authorities are at the beck and call of the government are unable to do so, I as just one individual will attempt to do so. If this means driving every back road, every dirt road, every alley in the county of Neshoba, I will do it.

HOLT: Shortly after the civil rights workers disappeared, NBC News hosted a special report hosted by Frank McGee that not only recounted the known facts of the case, but also offered viewers an unflinching look at the harsh realities of race relations in Mississippi.

FRANK MCGEE: It is hostile country, with a hostile attitude towards civil rights workers. A report from John Chancellor, NBC News, New Orleans.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: This is backwoods Mississippi, silent and suspicious. The silence and suspicion is felt here at the county seat, Philadelphia, where Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were arrested for speeding. The concern in Philadelphia, Mississippi today, however, is not so much with civil rights workers who have come and gone, but with others on the way. This morning, fifty men signed up as volunteer auxiliary policemen, under a plan formed weeks ago. The auxiliaries will be empowered to arrest civil rights workers.

Not all the reaction to the invasion of the civil rights workers has been official. There have been, for example, five church burnings in the past dozen days. All the churches were Negro churches. None of the fires have accidental origins, no arrests.

RICHARD VALERIANI, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I got to Philadelphia, I think, the day after we learned they were missing.

HOLT: NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani covered the civil rights movement throughout the South.

VALERIANI: The scariest place you’ve ever been. I mean, I don’t know, the hatred was almost palpable. The heavy, summer Mississippi air, you could almost feel it.

HOLT: In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson made finding the three young men a top priority. Teams of FBI agents were assigned to the case, and sailors from a nearby naval installation were called in to search for bodies.

GOVERNOR PAUL B. JOHNSON, JR.: It could be that it is a hoax to attract attention from the effort of these little groups that have failed. But that is something that I do not know.

ROSS BARNETT, Former Governor of Mississippi: we’re sorry for any children, any youngsters whose parents do not insist that they stay away from other states, trying to tell people of other states how to conduct their affairs. Because they do not know what it’s all about. And it’s pitiful that parents have not trained their children in the way that they should have. They ought to stay at home and work. They ought to stay at home and tend to their own business.

FRANK MCGEE: Tonight in Washington, the FBI announced the finding of three bodies in graves at the site of a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers disappeared a month ago. The bodies were found in a wooded area about six miles southwest of Philadelphia, where the young men were last seen. The three – Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner – were last seen the night of June 21st. The FBI said a search party of agents turned up the bodies late this afternoon while digging in thick woods and underbrush several hundred yards off Route 21. The agency said the bodies are being taken to Jackson, Mississippi, where an effort will be made to identify them and determine the cause of death.

CAROLYN GOODMAN: I seem to remember that we were at the theater. We were at the theater, and friends came and said, you know, “Come back, because they found the bodies. They’re buried under this earthen dam.

REPORTER off camera: Mrs. Goodman, are you optimistic about the ultimate … solution of the civil rights problem in the United States?

CAROLYN GOODMAN, in newsreel: All I can say is that if the people who have expressed their feelings most eloquently to us in these past weeks are any reflection of what I believe are the vast numbers of people throughout this country, I have great optimism.

RITA SCHWERNER, in newsreel: As you know, lynchings in Mississippi are not uncommon, they have occurred for many, many years. Uh, maybe this one could be the last if some positive steps were taken to show that the people in this country have had enough. That they require that human beings be treated as human beings. [shrugs]

REPORTER: Do you feel any vengeance, do you –

SCHWERNER: No. I feel a great deal of pity.

FANNIE LEE CHANEY: Well, you all know that I am Fannie Lee Chaney, the mother of James Chaney. Y’all know what my child was doing. He was trying for us all to make a better living. And he had two fellows from New York – had their own home and everything, didn’t have nothing to worry about. But they come here to help us. Did y’all know they come here to help us? They died for us!

HOLT: The state of Mississippi never charged anyone with the murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, seven Klansmen, including Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, were eventually convicted in federal court on charges of violating their civil rights.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: The future of the United States of America may well be determined here in Mississippi. For it is here that democracy faces its most serious challenge. Can we have government in Mississippi which represents all of the people?

HOLT: There would be many more beatings, bombings and jailings in Mississippi that summer of ’64. But the Freedom Summer voter-registration effort was a stunning success, registering thousands of new black voters and focusing the nation’s attention on the issue of voting rights, an issue that would dominate the nation’s headlines again in 1965.

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