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Three who gave their lives: Remembering the martyrs of Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964

By Les Bayless, People's Weekly World, 25 May 1996

OXFORD, Miss. - Buford Posey was stunned when he picked up the March 13 copy of the Neshoba Democrat, a local newspaper. Prominently featured was a photo of the newly sworn-in officers of the Neshoba County Shriners club. Among the men in the photo was Cecil Price who had just taken the oath as the Shriners' vice president.

Posey knew Cecil Ray Price. He knew something that others, from Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice on down, wanted Mississippi and the rest of the nation to forget.

"Cecil Price was the chief deputy sheriff of Neshoba County in 1964," Posey told the World in an exclusive interview. "He led the Ku Klux Klan that lynched Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman on Sunday night, June 21, 1964.

"I have tried without success to get Mississippi newspapers to comment on this outrage of Cecil Price being elected as a high-ranking Masonic leader," Posey said.

In a slow southern drawl, Posey recounted events that had occurred in Philadelphia, Miss. that night in 1964.

In this small town of 6,000, 30 miles northeast of Jackson, three young volunteers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were murdered. They were participants in "Freedom Summer," an effort to register African American voters in the deep south. The three young men - a local teenager named James Chaney and New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman - were dragged from a blue station wagon along an isolated country road and brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. They had been arrested earlier that evening by Price on trumped up charges and released.

Sheriff's deputies followed their vehicle from the police station. Two days later, the station wagon was found near a swamp, burned out and empty. For the next six weeks, the FBI searched Neshoba County for the bodies of the three young men.

Finally on Aug. 4 the bodies were discovered. A team of pathologists who later examined the bodies found that Chaney, who was African American and a native of nearby Meridian, had been beaten so brutally that he was probably dead when a Klansman shot him three times. Schwerner and Goodman died from gunshot wounds.

In a 1967 interview, Chaney's mother summed up the feelings of a bereaved nation. She said the three men and others like them made a difference in Mississippi. "It was wonderful of them to volunteer their time. It made a lot of colored people start to think there would be a chance for them. It woke up a lot of people - both Negro and white," Fannie Lee Chaney told the Worker, the predecessor to the People's Weekly World.

A reward had been posted for information leading to the discovery of the bodies. Evidence submitted by Posey and others identified the leader of the murderous band as a local sheriff's deputy named Cecil Ray Price.

FBI cover-up

Although Posey comes from a prominent Mississippi family, he was active in the civil rights movement in the early '60s. He will tell you, with not a little bit of pride in his voice, that he was the first white person in Mississippi to join the NAACP. He now lives in Oxford, where he receives a small disability pension.

Posey said that the FBI knew who murdered the civil rights workers within hours of the grisly event. "In those days I was in Neshoba County, where I was born and raised. Though I traveled around a lot, I had been at my father's in Philadelphia because he was dying of prostate cancer," Posey said.

"The murders took place on a Sunday night, June 21, 1964 on Rock Cut Road, right off Highway 19. I was sitting home that night. It was late, 2 o'clock or something like that, and I received a call. I recognized the voice at once."

The caller was Edgar Ray Killen, the "chaplain" of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. "We took care of your three friends tonight and you're next," Killen told Posey.

Posey had gone to Meridian the week before and talked to Schwerner, the oldest of the three murdered workers. "I told them to be careful. 'The Klan has sentenced you to death. You know the sheriffs up there, Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Ray Price, are Klan members.'"

The morning after the call from Killen, Posey contacted the FBI, first in Jackson and then New Orleans. "I told them I was a civil rights worker, who I worked for and what had happened. I told them the preachers' name and that I thought the sheriff's office was involved in the murder."

The FBI didn't act on Posey's tip. Civil rights leaders had long charged that the FBI worked with local racists and ignored those they were supposed to be protecting. An article in the Worker, dated two years after the murders, gave a concrete example of this:

"The threat of death crowded in on the Mississippi marchers and the Negro inhabitants of Neshoba County, following four attacks on the Negro community in Philadelphia, Miss., Tuesday night by racists shooting from cars. Earlier a mob of 300 men, using clubs, bottles, cherry bombs and stones, assaulted the marchers. Representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, town police and county deputies stood by passively during the assaults."

Though the FBI ignored Posey, a chain of events was soon set in motion that led to the discovery of the bodies and another three years later, the conviction of Neshoba Sounty Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, Price and five others on federal charges of violating the civil rights of the three murdered men.

Klan conducts a "funeral"

Soon after the "disappearance" of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, Posey fled to Tennessee where he took refuge at the Highlander Center near Knoxville. He was soon to come across information that pinpointed the location of the bodies and the identities of the murderers.

This information, initially ignored by federal authorities, led the FBI to the discovery of the three young martyrs. It came from Ernest Moore, a World War II veteran who had a drinking problem. Here's how Posey recounted the story to the World:

"Ernest was a good man, but a veteran will tell you that some of those boys never sobered up after the war.

"Ernest lived with his widowed mother near the dam site where the bodies were eventually found. Well, one night Earnest was drinking and his momma wouldn't let him in the house. So he went down near the dam and laid under a tree and fell asleep. He woke up kind of early in the morning and he heard Ray Killen. He knew him 'cause he'd heard him on TV. Killen was preaching a funeral.

"The preacher was asking the Lord to forgive [Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman] for being Jews and Communists, agitators and things like that. Moore thought he was dreaming ... you know, Moore had had the D.T.s several times but he was saying, 'God almighty, this is my worse case yet." Moore walked several miles back to town and fell asleep in front of a dry cleaners owned by Hugh Wolverton, a friend of Posey's. Wolverton was later to tell Posey the exact location of the bodies.

Mississippi's bloody legacy

Posey had talked to newspaper columnist Drew Pearson who was a friend of President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson and the "big news organizations," according to Posey, started to put the pressure on.

Six weeks after the murders the bodies were found buried on the property of a wealthy Klansman named Olen Burrage, who was never prosecuted. But the remains of the three civil rights workers wasn't all the FBI found.

According to Posey, "[the FBI] searched and drug the Pearl River looking for those civil rights workers. I know personally that they found at least seven blacks killed whose bodies were thrown there by the Klan."

Mississippi never brought state charges against any of the Klansmen who committed these crimes. Posey thinks there's a reason for that. "When I was coming up most of the white people in Mississippi didn't know it was against the law to murder a Black person," he said. He recalled an incident he witnessed as a child that shaped his thinking on the genocidal cruelty of racism.

"I was in Philadelphia one Saturday afternoon - in the olden days people came to town on Saturday - they were share croppers and the like. Well, to make a long story short, there was this Black teenager. There was this white woman who came out of a store right there on Court Square." The teen accidentally bumped into her. The woman started screaming.

"Well, some men went into Johnson's hardware store and took out some shotguns," Posey said. "They chased the poor young fellow around Court Square, shooting at him. They killed him and chained him to the flag pole."

The Klan was driven by racist hatred, Posey said, but the strings were being pulled by the wealthy elite who benefited from racism. "The Klan was being motivated by political leaders who wanted to keep the status quo," he said. "In Mississippi you had a few wealthy people who sent their kids to [the University of Mississippi] and owned the big plantations. Most whites couldn't even afford to pay the poll tax or pass a literacy test to vote."

Sacrifices not forgotten

In 1994 hundreds of veteran civil rights workers gathered in Jackson to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Among those attending the conference were Rita Schwerner, widow of Michael Schwerner, and Carolyn Goodman, mother of Andrew Goodman.

A political firestorm was set off when Dick Molphus, then a Democratic candidate for governor, apologized to Carolyn Goodman. Gov. Kirk Fordice rebuked Molphus, saying it did no good to drag up the past. Posey believes this provided the incentive for Neshoba County to "rehabilitate" Cecil Price.

The rededication of the gravesite of James Chaney in nearby Meridian was the emotional highlight of the Mississippi homecoming. Chaney's brother, Ben, had a warning for civil rights veterans who had come to honor the three martyrs.

"There are a lot of good people in Mississippi," he said. "But there are still some who haven't learned the lessons of the past. There are still people in Mississippi who don't want my brother to rest in peace."

Chaney told the World that gunshots from a high-powered rifle had been fired into his brother's gravestone. At least one attempt had been made to dig up and steal the body.

Rev. Charles Johnson, who was a government witness in the federal trial of Chaney's murderers, sounded a more optimistic note. "These three men shed their blood in the state of Mississippi and because of them we have the Voting Rights Act. Because of them we have more elected Black officials in Mississippi than in any other state."

Johnson said, "In this state, hatred flowed like a river. Where hatred rolled, freedom and love now flow. We have to get to the young people and let them know what Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman did for them."

There is other evidence that the sacrifices of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman have not been forgotten. The AFL-CIO will be conducting a massive voter education and registration campaign this summer which will involve thousands of college students and young workers. They choose to honor the effort, dedication and bravery of the thousands who worked in Mississippi and other states to make equal rights a closer reality. They have named the project "Union Summer."

-Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.

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