This Day in History: Mississippi Murders of Civil Rights Heroes
On this day, June 21, in 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The top map above was published in the Atlas of African-American History by James Ciment. It details the locations of where the civil rights workers were arrested and murdered.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized young people to employ voter registration drives in the South. The SNCC decided to intensify their registration efforts in Mississippi in 1964. Barely six percent of eligible African Americans were registered to vote. (See map above from Atlas of African-American History—click to enlarge). The plan for the voter registration drive was called “Freedom Summer.”
Hundreds of young African Americans were taught to register voters locally, and the SNCC organized white college students from the North to assist. According to Ciment, “The presence of whites would draw national press attention and provide a modicum of protection to the black organizers.”
The national press did cover the efforts during Freedom Summer, but the violence continued. During the drives, there were “more than one thousand arrests, 80 beatings by white mobs, and 67 bombings of black homes and churches.”
One June 21, three SNCC volunteers—two whites from the North named Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwermer, along with James Chaney, a local African American—were sent out to investigate the bombing of a black church near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Arrested and held for several hours for alleged traffic violations, the three were released that evening, only to disappear. For six weeks, state and federal authorities conducted a massive search for the three, which ended in the discovery of their bodies buried in a nearby earthen dam. Autopsies revealed Goodman and Schwermer were killed by a single bullet; Chaney had been beaten to death.
The murders of the young men caused national outrage, and the FBI conducted an investigation. The federal government arrested 18 people involved in the murders, but only seven were convicted with minor sentences. However, in 2005, former KKK leader Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter for the murders and sentenced to the maximum of 60 years in prison.
The murders were depicted in the Oscar-winning film “Mississippi Burning” starring Gene Hackman. Most importantly, more than 80,000 black Mississippians registered to vote and joined the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party led by Fannie Lou Hamer. Note the map above showing the number of registered voters in 1970 compared to the map from 1964.
Atlas of African-American History is available for circulation from the Atlas Collection on the second floor of Bracken Library. The GIS Research and Map Collection (GRMC) also includes maps and other cartographic resources detailing important events in the civil rights movement, including a custom map about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and race riots. Maps from the GRMC may be circulated for use in education, research, and exhibits.
For more information, please contact the GRMC at 765-285-1097.