On this day in 1964, three civil rights activists--Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner—were in Mississippi to help register black voters during “Freedom Summer.” When they went to investigate the burning of a black church, they were arrested on trumped-up charges, beaten, and released by the police into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, who murdered them. Only under extensive pressure from civil rights proponents was there a grand jury opened and were charges brought. Of eighteen men arrested, only seven were convicted and of those, no one served more than six years. The instigating KKK leader who arranged and oversaw the murders got off because of a hung jury of 11 to 1, with one woman refusing to hand down a guilty verdict because the defendant was a preacher and she could not convict a preacher.
Fast forward 41 years:
On this very same day, June 21, in 2005, the KKK leader was finally found guilty of manslaughter, only after Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter who wrote extensively about the case, found new evidence and new interest in the murders. At the age of 80 the convicted defendant was given 60 years—20 years for each life he helped take. Only weeks after beginning his prison term, he claimed and convinced a judge that he had lost the use of his right hand and was permanently confined to a wheelchair and he was released on bond. But once out, witnesses saw him walking around fine and using his right side without any problem. Finally, in August two years later, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and he returned to prison. The convict appealed for a new trial, and was denied. He also tried to sue the FBI for using an informant and coercing witnesses. The case was dismissed. He continues today, at age 91, to serve in the Mississippi prison system.
The lost lives of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner brought greater national attention to civil rights at a time when we were at a tipping point. Those three men helped make our country become a better nation. In honor of them, their bravery, their tenacity, and their sacrifice, may we continue to remember their examples and treat every single person we see with dignity and respect.
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