Forty years ago, as Yale graduate student Jonathan Steele headed for Mississippi to join the Freedom Summer of protests, three of his co-activists were murdered by racist rednecks. He recalls his involvement in one of the most infamous events of the civil rights struggle
The voice on the line was polite but insistent. The FBI was conducting a nationwide manhunt for three men who had disappeared in Mississippi. My car had been found abandoned in suspicious circumstances in nearby Louisiana. Would I come immediately to explain why, and whether I knew anything about the men?
The phone call was unnerving even though I had nothing to hide, and I hastened to obey the summons. Of course I knew that the men had gone missing: the case was rocking America that summer, exactly 40 years ago. America's turbulent civil rights decade was at its height and the missing men were three volunteer activists who had been helping black people stand up for their rights and register to vote in the Deep South's most violent state. They had been arrested by the deputy sheriff of Neshoba county on June 21, held for a few hours, and released after dark. Two days later their burned-out station wagon was discovered on a lonely road, but the men were nowhere to be found.
James Chaney, 21, was a black Mississippian from Meridian, a city in the eastern part of the state. Micky Schwerner, 24, was a Jewish activist from New York City who had spent four months in Meridian, running various civil rights projects. Andrew Goodman, 20, came from an upper-middle-class New York family, and had arrived in Mississippi only the day before he went missing. Their terrible story was later turned into a film, Mississippi Burning.
The three activists had disappeared a few hours after a cavalcade of 200 young people arrived in Mississippi for what was called the Freedom Summer. The term "human shields" was not yet in vogue but that is what we were. The idea was that as outsiders we might shame Mississippi's police and sheriffs into reducing their brutality. With the exception of a handful of foreigners such as myself, the roughly 800 volunteers were American - mostly students from prestigious Ivy League universities and other private colleges. We had to bring $500 for use as bail money in the very probable case of being arrested on trumped-up or minor charges.
There were a few middle-class blacks but the majority were affluent whites, and firm believers in the American dream. In the deep south they were vilified as "outside agitators", as though they had no business to be there. They discovered another America, a society in which they were indeed foreigners. Here was a state where blacks made up 45% of the population but only 6% had managed to overcome the poll taxes, the unfairly administered literacy tests and violent reprisals, just to get on the register to exercise their American right to vote.
Before we reached Mississippi we had attended a week-long orientation session at a college in Oxford, Ohio. The three men who went missing were on the course, too. Activists from the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee organised role-plays of redneck thugs beating up defenceless blacks to show us how to curl up and - with luck - avoid serious injury. We were advised of our legal rights.
The instructors, dressed in blue denim overalls, included firebrands such as Stokely Carmichael and Marion Barry, who later became "black power" symbols. But there were quieter ones such as James Forman, who warned us that our presence in Mississippi would inevitably provoke violence, and that we should not provoke it further through sassy behaviour: "I may be killed. You may be killed. But Mississippi is not the place to start conducting constitutional law classes for policemen, many of whom don't have a fifth-grade education."
We piled into cars and set off for Mississippi. I was assigned to Vicksburg, a town of around 25,000 people. Our headquarters was a rambling wooden house set high above a pot-holed road in one of the many black parts of town. The plan was to teach literacy and arithmetic in "freedom schools", run health clinics, and accompany local people to the courthouse to get registered. It was rather different from what I had expected of my Harkness postgraduate fellowship to study at Yale.
Within weeks of arriving at Yale, Mississippi had loomed large on my inquisitive horizon. A group of black Mississippi leaders and a white thirtysomething law professor called Allard Lowenstein were launching what would become the prototype for the Freedom Summer. To highlight the exclusion of blacks from politics, they organised a parallel vote during the election for Mississippi's governor in November 1963. Dubbed a "mock election", it was like the official contest in all but the participants: there was a black candidate who took, symbolically, a white running-mate for the post of deputy governor. There were polling stations in black churches and schools. The aim was to show that blacks would vote if they could.
Conscientiously, I told the Harkness fellowship administrators of my plan to go to Mississippi. The reaction was horror. This was not the sampling of life in the south they wanted. But after prolonged efforts to dissuade me, they pleaded, "Well, if you must go, at least don't take the car." I consented, and got a lift south with friends.
My first Mississippi visit was a shock. We took part in crowded church-hall rallies that were invaded by heavy-set fire marshals, who ordered everyone out because the meetings allegedly constituted a fire hazard. In a modern church in Biloxi we had to cower behind pillars in the aisle when local white thugs threw volleys of stones through the plate-glass windows. We were tailed by state troopers who pulled our cars over for minor infractions, or slapped on fines for obstruction because the car was parked more than two inches from the kerb. Several of us were arrested. A few were beaten.
We quickly realised that there were many Americas. The one we saw in Mississippi was run by lawless law officers and vicious thugs, while the "power structure" of nice white folks went along or deliberately encouraged it.
When I told the Harkness people I was planning to return to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer, their reaction was similarly desperate. This time I insisted on taking the car since I planned to go on from the south to do some life-sampling on the west coast. We reached a compromise whereby I would drive to the Ohio training, go on to Vicksburg, drop my friends, and then leave the car safely in Louisiana until I had finished in Mississippi.
So on June 22, before word got out that our three colleagues had disappeared at the other side of the state, I set off for Baton Rouge and left my gleaming Chevrolet in an open-air parking lot on the edge of town. The car had New York licence plates, which, to many whites in the south, was equivalent to a declaration of war. Yankees were only one degree better than communists. I told the attendant I was leaving the car for several weeks. My English accent startled him further.
In Vicksburg, we heard the news that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were missing. We immediately assumed that they had been lynched, as a warning to all outside agitators. Mississippi's law enforcement officials showed an unsurprising lack of concern at the news. White Mississippi politicians claimed the missing men had been whisked off by their masters in Cuba as a communist plot to discredit the good white people of America.
Fortunately, one aspect of the thinking behind the decision to bring in affluent white students quickly kicked in. The families of Goodman and Schwerner demanded action. Northern liberal politicians took up the cry, and Lyndon Johnson, the Texan vice-president who had unexpectedly become chief executive on John F. Kennedy's death, was pressed to show he was a national and not just a regional politician.
Alerted by the hue and cry and the FBI's call for information, the Baton Rouge parking-lot attendant advised them a few days later of the abandoned Yankee vehicle with the foreign driver. Was this the getaway car that had spirited the activists part of the way to Havana? The Harkness people, dumbfounded, confirmed to the FBI that they had leased the Chevrolet on behalf of a young Englishman, who had gone to Mississippi.
My interview at the FBI regional headquarters in New Orleans was not as arduous as I feared. The detectives were cold and unsmiling but I sensed they knew that my car was irrelevant and were only going through the motions. Top FBI officials were already on the case in Mississippi, working on the assumption that the missing men had been killed and secretly buried soon after the Neshoba county sheriff had released them. There was no getaway car. There was no Cuban link. They had been murdered by the same thugs in uniform who had released them into the Mississippi night.
So it turned out to be. The truth emerged, largely thanks to John Doar, the US Justice Department's representative in Mississippi. Alerted to the disappearances, he ordered the Meridian-based FBI agent (played by Gene Hackman in the film) to investigate. Eleven other agents were sent in. Johnson dispatched sailors from the navy to search the swamps and backwaters of Neshoba county. But the task was futile unless someone cracked. The FBI offered rewards and interviewed the sheriff of Neshoba County, Lawrence Rainey, his deputy, Cecil Price, and scores of their assistants and friends.
After several weeks James Jordan, a liquor-store owner and member of the local Ku Klux Klan, decided to become a federal witness in return for a lighter sentence. He led the FBI to a dam where the men's bodies were found under tons of earth piled up by an excavator. He had been on the scene when the murders occurred: Price and several other men had chased the men's stationwagon, got it to stop, and then shot them one by one.
The trial took place in Meridian in 1967. The defendants included the sheriff and his deputy, the mayor of Philadelphia, the only town in Neshoba county, and several Klan leaders. The judge, William Cox, was a fiercely pro-segregation Mississippian. The jury heard that Sam Bowers, who boasted the laughable title of Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, had instructed the klansmen of Neshoba as far back as May 1964 to eliminate Schwerner, whom they called "Goatee" or "Jew-Boy". It took them a month to find the right opportunity. Chaney and Goodman were just unlucky to be with Schwerner at the time.
The all-white jury came up with a compromise verdict, convicting Price, Bowers, and five others, but letting Rainey go free. Cox gave Bowers 10 years and Price six, commenting: "They killed one nigger, one Jew and a white man - I gave them all what I thought they deserved." Although Rainey got off, it was the first time a Mississippi court had ever convicted someone for killing civil rights workers. The image of Price and Rainey, leering and chewing tobacco through the trial, was branded on many Americans' minds as a symbol of ignorant racism.
Ironically, Johnson's leadership on civil rights allowed him to win an easy victory in the 1964 election, which he then used to send US forces to Vietnam. The Freedom Summer also gave huge impetus to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed most of the artificial qualifications for registration.
But in the end the Freedom Summer of 1964 may have done more for the volunteers who took part in it than for the people they tried to help. Some went back into the mainstream, but with a new commitment to justice. A few became lifelong radicals. None remained untouched.
Copyright © 2004, Jonathan Steele and The Guardian
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