‘If we aren’t back by four’: The Philadelphia, Mississippi murders 60 years later

Photo: Missing poster of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. Credit: FBI

On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers, were murdered by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. All three were working to end apartheid in the Jim Crow South. 

The 60th anniversary of their deaths comes as the right-wing — the spiritual heirs of their murderers — are engaging in a sustained campaign to pervert, and often erase, the history of the national oppression of Black people in the United States. We see them today trying to roll back many of the gains that martyrs like Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner paid for with their blood.

Their deaths serve as an example of how deeply embedded the most hardcore, hard-right, pro-capitalist elements, disproportionately rooted in the South and organized for vigilante terrorism, are within the capitalist power structure, acting as a brake on progress. That these murders couldn’t stop the end of de jure segregation is a reminder that forces of reaction are not all powerful. The fact that the fight for Black Liberation is ongoing is a reminder that they are very difficult to dislodge. 

Commemorating the legacy of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner is about more than simply preserving the past, but also reaffirming the need to continue the fight. 

Freedom Summer

The March on Washington in August 1963, and thousands of other actions, showed that Black America was a force that could not be denied and also exposed the semi-fascist dictatorship in the U.S. South. The soldiers in the Freedom Movement were focused on breaking up the “Solid South” racist political block. Since 1961, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality had been helping local people in Mississippi organize in this direction. 

The SNCC and CORE workers “trudged up and down dirt roads, sat on porches, went to church, walked into cotton fields, and helped with daily chores,” to deepen their networks of those willing to stand-up.1 

By summer 1964, an offensive was on to register as many Black voters as possible, a project that became known as “Freedom Summer.” This campaign mobilized white college students from the North to bolster movement capacity. In Meridian, Mississippi, the local project was headed up by Michael Schwerner and his wife Rita, who quickly came to rely on Meridian native James Chaney. As Freedom Summer began, they would be joined by Queens College student Andrew Goodman.

Freedom Fighters

Michael “Mickey” Schwerner was a Jewish Manhattan social worker who wanted to fight “the root causes of poverty, such as racism.” He and Rita, deeply moved by the 16th Street Church bombing, decided to apply to CORE for full-time work in the South. In her application, Rita expressed her and Schwerner’s hope to “someday pass on to the children we may have a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men than that world which was willed to us.”2

James Earl Chaney, dubbed J.E. by his family, was the Black son of a construction worker and a domestic servant. From the earliest age, he had been exposed to ritual humiliation, backed up with violence and visited on people like him. Chaney’s cousin and great grandfather had been lynched. In 1959, at age 16, he was involved in an NAACP youth membership drive, and started volunteering with CORE in Meridian in 1963.3 

Schwerner and Chaney became tight, with the former nicknaming the latter “Bear.” “They were like Siamese twins,” said another CORE worker of their close relationship.4 

In May 1964, the two spoke at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, one county over from Meridian in Neshoba. “You’ve been slaves too long,” said Schwerner. “Meet us here, we’ll train you so you can qualify to vote.” The congregation agreed to host a Freedom School.5 

In early June, while Chaney, Rita and Schwerner were training Freedom Summer volunteers in Ohio, the Klan burned down Mt. Zion and beat many of its parishioners because of their connection to the Freedom Movement. On June 20, Schwerner and Chaney drove back to Meridian with the first wave of volunteers, which included Andrew Goodman.

Andy Goodman came from a left-wing Jewish family on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As a high school student in 1958, he joined the Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington D.C. In April 1964, he attended a “Freedom Week” event at Queens College. Shortly after, he told his parents that he wanted to go to Mississippi. When his father asked why, Goodman responded, “If someone says they care about people, how can he not be concerned about this?” 

The gathering storm

Segregationists were extremely alarmed by Freedom Summer. A massive push by the Freedom Movement might have just toppled Jim Crow. To protect their fascistic regime, the Mississippi establishment went to the whip hand. In response, the mayor of Jackson “added one hundred cops … two horses … and six dogs,” to the existing 200-strong police force, as well as augmenting that with 200 new shotguns, tear gas, and “three military troop carriers.” The governor called a special session to double the size of highway patrol, who also “stockpiled guns and ammunition.”6

Intertwined with the “official” power structure was the KKK. On June 7, 1964 Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers told a few hundred Klansmen that the KKK needed “a secondary group of our members, standing back from the main area of conflict, armed and ready to move. It must be an extremely swift, extremely violent, hit-and-run group.”7

The Wizard had an eager disciple in the Meridian area, Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen. The Preacher told recruits they should be prepared to deliver “the occasional ‘elimination.’”8 He assembled a crew of cops, gas station attendants, large landowners and petty criminals. They kept close tabs on CORE, especially Schwerner in particular.

Lynching Neshoba style

On the morning of June 21, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman left Meriden headed for a meeting regarding the Mt. Zion church burning in Neshoba. Before leaving, Schwerner told volunteer Sue Brown to institute the emergency protocols if they had not returned or phoned by 4 p.m. In the midst of the day, the three movement workers learned that the mob who burned down the church were out looking for Schwerner. 

Not long after 3 p.m., Neshoba County Sheriff’s deputy Cecil Price, a White Knight of the KKK, pulled the three over and incarcerated them in the county seat of Philadelphia. Price reached out to Preacher Killen, to arrange a lynch mob. Killen rounded up two carloads of Klansman in Philadelphia for an ambush. Around 10 p.m., Price released the three and forced them to drive out of Philadelphia as he followed.  

Price gave chase, along with one of the Klan cars (the other had broken down). Among the passengers were ex-Marine Wayne Roberts, mobile home salesman James Jordan and driver Horace Barnette, an auto parts salesman in Meridian. Eventually Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney decided to pull over. They were bundled into Price’s car, followed by Barnette’s, deep out into the piney woods. 

Roberts dragged Schwerner out of Price’s car, asking him, “Are you that n***er lover?” 

In what seems like a last attempt to reason with his killer, Schwerner responded: “Sir, I know exactly how you feel.” 

Roberts responded with a pistol round into Schwerner’s chest at point blank range. Roberts then grabbed Goodman and shot him in the chest too. Jordan pulled Chaney from Price’s car next, shot him in the abdomen, followed up with a head shot by Roberts. Before they shot him, Chaney was badly beaten and castrated. 

They then packed up the bodies and drove them to the Old Jolly Farm, owned by Olen Burrage who also owned a trucking company. Burrage had once told a room of Neshoba Klansmen discussing how to handle civil rights workers: “Hell, I’ve got a dam that’ll hold a hundred of them.” The killers used a tractor to bury the three in the earthen dam. Goodman, shot through the heart but still breathing, was buried alive.9 

The aftermath 

In Meridian, Freedom Summer volunteers waited until 5 p.m., just in case, to activate the emergency search. Around 10 p.m. they called SNCC headquarters in Atlanta to report the three men missing. By morning, activists had organized a campaign to bombard Congress with telegrams. 

On June 23, the New York Times ran a front page story about the missing men, capturing the attention of the nation. The Neshoba County Sheriff told the media it was all a hoax, a publicity stunt, and that the three freedom fighters were hiding somewhere, maybe Cuba. By the afternoon the burned hulk of the station wagon Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had been driving was discovered by Choctaw scavengers. 

The FBI was, essentially, part of the Klan conspiracy. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did everything he could to not protect civil rights workers and actively worked to undermine and destroy their organizations. Facing crisis, President Lyndon B. Johnson used maneuvers and tricks to put Hoover in a situation where his best option was to acquiesce to Johnson’s wish for a strong FBI response. 

Well over 100 agents were sent to Mississippi, and sailors from the Navy were brought in to bolster the search. They found no sign of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner but discovered that the local Klan had been conducting a reign of terror. The bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, who had disappeared in May, turned up in searches, alongside 14-year old Herbert Oarsby, found wearing a CORE t-shirt, plus five other Black men who have never been identified. 

On August 4, an FBI informant led agents to the dam with the bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. By November, the Justice Department took 18 Klan members to trial for conspiracy to deprive the three freedom fighters of their civil rights. Seven, including Sam Bowers, Wayne Roberts and Cecil Price, were convicted. Preacher Killen went free on a hung jury. None of the guilty served more than six years. The State of Mississippi refused to charge any of the 18 (or anyone else) with murder. In 2005 an 80-year old Edgar Ray Killens was convicted of manslaughter. 


While no real legal justice was obtained for the slain, the lynching of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner did not stop the toppling of the Jim Crow legal structure. Relative to the pre-Civil Rights status quo, this brought significant change to Mississippi. For the first time since Reconstruction, Black people could vote and hold office at all levels, quickly monopolizing most positions in majority-Black counties and cities. A burgeoning Black co-op movement allowed some rural Black residents to leverage their collective efforts for greater economic development.10

Nonetheless, the real limits of this Second Reconstruction became clear as the 1970s wore on. The reactionary right-wing regrouped and reorganized, launching an attack on social programs rooted in the broad anti-poverty, anti-racist, anti-militarist agenda that emerged from the Southern Freedom Movement and underpinned the radical upsurge from 1964-1975. This counter-revolution of sorts is why in Mississippi, 73% of Black children can live in poverty, as compared to 38% of whites.11

As Malcolm X said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”12 The inability of the First or Second Reconstruction to put an end to capitalist exploitation set them on the course to be rolled back as soon as capital was capable of a counterassault. Remembering Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner is to recognize the need for a Third Reconstruction13 — a socialist reconstruction — to address the contradictions that the First and Second Reconstructions left unresolved. 

If we want to honor our three martyrs, we must pick up the baton and sweep away the last obstacles to the better world they were willing to die for. 

  1. ↩︎
  2.  Seth Cagin, Philip Dray, “We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi” (Scribner, 1988) pp. 257-259 ↩︎
  3.  Ibid. pp. 166-171 ↩︎
  4.  Ibid. pp. 270-271 ↩︎
  5.  Ibid. p.2 ↩︎
  6.  Kwame Ture, “Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael” (Scribner, 2003) pp. 360-361 ↩︎
  7.  Don Whitehead “Murder in Mississippi” (Reader’s Digest: September 1970). ↩︎
  8. Cragin & Dray, p.266 ↩︎
  9.  Ibid. Ch. 9 “Rock Cut Road” ↩︎
  10.; ↩︎
  11.–%20The%20majority%20of%20Mississippi’s%20Black,research%20partner%20United%20For%20ALICE ↩︎
  12.–%20The%20majority%20of%20Mississippi’s%20Black,research%20partner%20United%20For%20ALICE ↩︎
  13. ↩︎

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