Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A group of white supremacists attacked and murdered three civil rights workers in the Deep South. The three boys were missing for weeks, capturing national headlines even before their bodies were discovered and focusing renewed attention on the struggle for civil rights in the Southern United States.

Summary of Event

The struggle for black equality reached its crest in the two years after the August, 1963, March on Washington. During that period, the last elements of legal segregation died. More important, black disenfranchisement, the key to maintaining the old, dual system of life in the South, also ended. The registration and enfranchisement of African Americans came, however, at a heavy cost. Three young civil rights workers, for example, were killed for their efforts to give the right to vote to those who had been denied it since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870’s. The murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner focused international attention on the Civil Rights movement and brought a commitment from the federal government to bring to justice those responsible for the crime. Civil Rights movement;violence [kw]Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered (June 21-22, 1964) [kw]Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered, Three (June 21-22, 1964) [kw]Rights Workers Are Murdered, Three Civil (June 21-22, 1964) Civil Rights movement;violence [g]North America;June 21-22, 1964: Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered[08090] [g]United States;June 21-22, 1964: Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered[08090] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 21-22, 1964: Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered[08090] [c]Terrorism;June 21-22, 1964: Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered[08090] Schwerner, Michael Chaney, James Goodman, Andrew Price, Cecil Ray Hoover, J. Edgar Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;civil rights

After judicial decisions had ended the tradition of separate schools and facilities in the South, civil rights organizations turned their attention to registering African Americans as voters. Believing that access to the ballot box was the key to empowering the dispossessed, organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sought to organize massive voter registration drives in the Deep South. In particular, leaders targeted the state of Mississippi, the poorest and least literate in the nation.

During the winter of 1963-1964, the Council of Federated Organizations Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a confederation of civil rights organizations, planned for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Freedom Summer (1964) , which had as its goal the registration of as many African Americans as possible. More than one thousand white college students volunteered to spend their summers organizing community centers and teaching reading, writing, and civics to rural African Americans who wanted to become voters. In the area of Neshoba County, Mississippi, COFO’s plans were unpopular with most white citizens. For the first time since the end of Reconstruction, the national Ku Klux Klan Ku Klux Klan Terrorist organizations organized local klaverns in the area.

Michael Schwerner, a graduate of Cornell University, and his wife had moved to Meridian, Mississippi, during the winter to begin the preparations for the Freedom Summer. A committed believer in racial equality, Schwerner quickly became a target for the white supremacists of Neshoba County. Various plans to eliminate him were discussed in Klan meetings. James Chaney was a native of the area and had become a paid COFO staff member a few months before he was murdered. Andrew Goodman was one of the Freedom Summer volunteers who was scheduled to work in Neshoba County. He arrived in the area on June 20 and was killed one day later.





The events surrounding the murder of the three civil rights workers began on June 16, when a group of armed white men beat the lay leaders of the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, a small, all-black community in Neshoba County. Later that night, several of the whites returned and set fire to the church, which was to have housed one of the Freedom Schools. On June 21, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner drove to Longdale from Meridian to examine the church’s remains. On their return from Neshoba County, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price stopped their car for speeding. After arresting Chaney for driving sixty-five miles per hour in a thirty-five-mile-per-hour zone, Price arrested Goodman and Schwerner for suspicion of arson in the Mount Zion church fire. He then placed the three in the Neshoba County jail, where they remained for more than five hours.

At about the time that the three were placed in jail, COFO was activating its procedures for locating field-workers who had not returned or phoned by 4:00 p.m. In addition to telephoning all of the area hospitals, COFO staff placed calls to all the jails. When the Neshoba County jail was called by the Meridian COFO office, however, the person who answered the phone flatly denied having seen any of the three.

While Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were in the jail, Price, a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, notified his Klan superiors and made arrangements for the elimination of the troublemakers. Specifically, leaders of the local klavern located a bulldozer operator and arranged for him to dispose of the three men’s bodies even before the men were released from jail. Several years later, it became known that the murder plan was finalized before the three were released from the jail that evening.

Sometime after 10:00 p.m., Deputy Price allowed Chaney to pay a twenty dollar fine for speeding and prepared to release all three. None was permitted to make a phone call, and all three knew that a release after dark was dangerous. Price escorted the three to their car and directed them to leave Neshoba County. On the drive back toward Meridian, a high-speed car chase began as Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner raced for the county line. They did not make it. Price stopped their car again and ordered the three into his car as the rest of the Klan posse arrived.

The three cars—Price’s, the posse’s, and the COFO car, driven by a Klansman—proceeded to a deserted dirt road. Once off the main road, Schwerner and Goodman were pulled from the car and shot through the heart at point-blank range. Before Chaney was killed, he was beaten severely with a blackjack. He was shot three times, with the third shot fired into his brain. The bodies of the three were carried to a remote farm, where a cattle pond was under construction. Chaney’s, Goodman’s, and Schwerner’s bodies were dumped into a prepared hole in the fresh earthen dam, and the COFO station wagon was driven in the opposite direction and burned.

The reaction to the disappearance of the three was swift. On June 22, U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy ordered a full-scale inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Following the discovery of the burned car on June 23, President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights authorized the use of two hundred men from the Meridian naval air station to aid in the search. Within Neshoba County, popular belief held that the three were hiding in an attempt to arouse northern sympathy for their work. Some even argued that COFO was responsible for the arson at the Mount Zion church, using it to complete the hoax effect. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, flew to the area on July 10, at the president’s request, to investigate the disappearances personally. At a press conference in Jackson, Mississippi, Hoover disclosed that the FBI force in the state had been increased to 153 agents—more than ten times the normal number—to protect civil rights workers.

On August 5, the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were unearthed from the new dam. Despite autopsies that unequivocally showed that Goodman and Schwerner had been shot to death and that Chaney had suffered an “inhuman beating” before dying from three gunshot wounds, a Neshoba County coroner’s jury ruled on August 25 that it was unable to determine the cause of death for any of the three.

On December 4, Hoover announced the arrests of nineteen men on federal conspiracy charges in connection with the murders, including Price and his superior, the Neshoba County sheriff. The FBI focused on the role of the Klan in the deaths, and more than sixty agents infiltrated the Mississippi Klan to obtain evidence. More than 1,000 Mississippians, including 480 Klan members, were interviewed during the investigation.


The murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner brought profound changes to the Deep South generally and to Neshoba County, Mississippi, specifically. Eventually, those directly involved were tried and convicted, and the cause for which the three men died, black enfranchisement, became a reality.

When the 1964 Neshoba County Fair opened six days after the bodies had been recovered, the mood was subdued and tense. Arizona senator Barry Goldwater Goldwater, Barry , the Republican nominee for president, canceled a planned appearance at the event, even though it had been an obligatory stop for politicians in the past. The discovery of the corpses also ended most of the discussions of a COFO-arranged hoax. Instead, the FBI used the discovery as a lever to secure information from Klansmen who mistrusted each other and feared arrest in the case. Since the FBI learned the precise location of the bodies, it was clear that agents were receiving very reliable information. A number of those involved suspected that more than just the burial location had been passed to the federal government, and the Klan’s code of silence was broken as several members sought to save themselves by cooperating with the investigation.

Using laws passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1870 Civil Rights Act of 1870 , the federal government obtained grand jury indictments charging those involved with conspiracy to deny Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner their civil rights. No substantive local investigation of the crime ever took place, and no murder charges were ever filed by the state of Mississippi. On October 20, 1967, a federal jury in Meridian convicted Cecil Ray Price and six codefendants of the charges, marking the first successful prosecution in Mississippi history of white officials and Klansmen for crimes against African Americans or civil rights workers. After unsuccessful appeals, all of the defendants entered federal custody on March 19, 1970, five and one-half years after the three murders.

The impact on the fight for civil rights was less clear. On July 2, 1964, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, publicly owned facilities, federally funded programs. and union membership. It also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to end discrimination in employment. In November, 1964, President Johnson won a landslide reelection, capturing 61 percent of the popular vote and 94 percent of the African American vote. Two million more African Americans voted in that election than had in 1960.

Following the discovery of the bodies and the revelation that Chaney had been beaten before his murder, unlike Schwerner and Goodman, the trend toward self-segregation within the Civil Rights movement came to the fore. Some African Americans had come to believe that they needed to lead their own fight and that whites could not be part of it. As the 1960’s progressed, these differences of opinion within the Civil Rights movement became more acute, and the movement became more diffuse as a result. Some, like Martin Luther King, Jr., rejected the idea of a movement for racial equality practicing segregation within itself. Others, like the leadership of SNCC, assumed a more radical position and eventually expelled all nonblacks from its projects. By then, enfranchisement for all was no longer a dream but instead a reality, and the Civil Rights movement was a success in ending legal segregation. Civil Rights movement;violence

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ball, Howard. Murder in Mississippi: “United States v. Price” and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Follows the events of the summer of 1964 in Mississippi from the point of view of the trial of Cecil Ray Price. Chronology of events, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cagin, Seth, and Philip Dray. We Are Not Afraid. New York: Macmillan, 1988. This is the best one-volume work on the Mississippi murders, the result of research into oral histories, court transcripts, and investigators’ files. Annotated, with a complete index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grimshaw, Allen D., ed. Racial Violence in the United States. Chicago: Aldine, 1969. One of the most comprehensive anthologies on racial violence. Covers American history beginning with seventeenth century slave revolts and running through the riots of the 1960’s. Contains a complete bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huie, William Bradford. Three Lives for Mississippi. Introduction by Martin Luther King, Jr. Reprint. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. Personal account of the events by a journalist who was present for them. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leuchtenburg, William F. A Troubled Feast: American Society Since 1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. A valuable, brief volume that provides a balanced introduction to recent American history. The Civil Rights movement is discussed within the context of broader social movements of the era. Contains a list of suggested readings and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Anthony. Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1964. One of the seminal books on American race relations in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, this single volume examines the origins and manifestations of the disagreements over civil rights through analyses and excerpts from both the popular and the scholarly press. Contains an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mars, Florence. Witness in Philadelphia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. This first-person account of the events in Neshoba County, as told by a white woman, provides valuable insight into life before, during, and after the murders, the investigation, and the federal prosecution. Although not scholarly, it yields a textured view of the events that is valuable for those who want to understand better how such an event could have happened. Contains annotations an index, and photographs of those involved in the events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. One of the best books for an overview of the American Civil Rights movement. This volume places the various elements of the movement into an understandable context for nonspecialists. Contains a biographical essay and an index.

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