In June 1964 I attended the first orientation session for Mississippi Summer Project volunteers in Oxford, Ohio. At that session I was selected to work in Meridian for the summer. On June 19, eight of us left for Mississippi in a station wagon: Jimmy Chaney, Andy Goodman, Micky Schwerner, myself, and 4 other summer volunteers.
We arrived in Meridian on June 20, 1964. The next morning Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman left to go to Neshoba County to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion Church, which had occurred while we were in Ohio. When the three did not return by 4 P.M., the designated return time, we began making phone calls. We had been trained about what to do in such a situation and we acted based on our training.
Shortly after 4 P.M. we called the Jackson COFO office, and they asked us to phone the local jails in Neshoba County. When we called the jail in Philadelphia, we were told that the three civil rights workers had not been seen, but a lie, since in fact at that moment the Deputy Sheriff was holding the three in his jail.
A short while later we phoned the Justice Department in Washington and we spoke with John Doar, who was in charge of Civil Rights enforcement. (Mr. Doar later became nationally prominent as the chief attorney for the Watergate Commission.) We asked him to instruct the FBI to call the local jails to inquire about the three missing civil rights workers. He refused to do so, stating that he could not act until 72 hours had passed, since that was the time that must elapse before a missing persons report can be filed. We told him that this was not a case of someone walking out after a marital dispute, but that 3 civil rights workers were missing in a part of Mississippi known to have a lot of Ku Klux Klan activity. We begged him to order the FBI to call the local jails. He continued to refuse.
Had John Doar done what we requested, and had the FBI called the jail in Philadelphia, it is possible the Deputy Sheriff Price would have gotten cold feet and not carried out his plan of taking the three civil rights workers out and murdering them. We will never know.
From these events, I learned that the system of racial segregation in Mississippi, and in the rest of the South, with its racial injustice, economic injustice, and violence, was not based just in Mississippi and the South. It was part of the system of power in the U.S. John Doar's refusal to order the FBI to make those phone calls was a reflection of the fact that the national power structure was reluctant to intervene in the segregationist system, because of the tie between the Southern Democratic Senators and the National Democratic Party.
The sacrifice made that summer forty years ago by the three murdered civil rights workers, together with the example of the African American people of Mississippi rising up against their oppression, inspired me, and many of my generation, to dedicate our lives to ending racial injustice, economic injustice, and violence. These problems have continued to fester in our country and our world, from the Vietnam War up until today. This job is not over. We still need to work to build a different world of racial equality, economic justice, and peace.
Copyright © 2004, David Kotz