Mississippi Burning Murders: The KKK And Local Sheriff Killed Three Civil Rights Activists Helping People Vote In 1964

By | June 19, 2020

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Missing persons poster created by the FBI in 1964, signed by Director J. Edgar Hoover. (Federal Bureau of Investigation/Wikimedia Commons)

On June 21, 1964, three young men mysteriously disappeared off a country road just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, never to be seen or heard from again. Although their burned and empty car was found only three days later, the local Philadelphia Police Department as well as the Neshoba County Sheriff's Office did little to find the missing persons. Because the three men—Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner—were Civil Rights activists, the Federal Bureau of Investigations quickly became suspicious and stepped in to take over the case. What would become known as the Mississippi Burning Murders rocked the nation, moved the Civil Rights movement further into mainstream American thinking as outrage finally turned into action, and even inspired the 1988 movie of the same name.

A Fateful Traffic Stop

The summer of '64 was known as the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, when young activists of all races sought out to improve voter turnout, specifically among the disenfranchised black population who faced a litany of obstacles to voter registration and sometimes violence at the hands of white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Goodman and Schwerner had traveled from New York to stay and work with their fellow activist, Chaney, in Meridian, Mississippi after they heard that the black-run Mount Zion Methodist Church, also a voter registration site, had been burned down. The three men drove to the nearby town of Philadelphia to investigate, but on the way home, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price pulled them over for speeding.

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Lawrence Rainey escorted by FBI agents in October 1964 near the Meridian Mississippi Federal Courthouse. (Horace Cort, AP/Wikimedia Commons)

Shocking Discoveries

Instead of simply giving the driver a speeding ticket, Price arrested all three men and brought them to the police station, where they were interrogated for hours and finally released later that night. According to the sheriff's office, that's where the story ends. However, the discovery of the burned car clearly pointed to foul play, and the FBI began a search for their bodies. Under the guidance of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the investigators teamed up with Navy divers to search the swamps near to where the car was located. Although they did not find the three activists, they found the bodies of eight young black men, five of whom were never even reported missing. Clearly, something very insidious was happening in Neshoba County.

It took another two months for the FBI to find the activist's bodies on a nearby farm thanks to an anonymous local informant known as "Mr. X," but the Bureau had used their time wisely, drafting informants to infiltrate local chapters of the KKK. They discovered what many activists had long feared: that some Philadelphia and Neshoba County police officers were active Klan members, including Deputy Price.