Thirty-six years ago this month, as another Presidential election campaign was
heating up, FBI investigators made a grissly discovery on an earthen dam
site on The Old Jolly Farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Acting on an anonymous
tip, the Bureau's Major Case Inspector, Joseph Sullivan, had sent a Catapillar
bulldozer to the farm in the hopes of locating--forty-four days after their
disappearance--the bodies of three civil rights workers. Minutes after
excavation began, a pair of boots peaked up through the exposed clay. Soon
the corpses of three young men, two white and one black, were loaded into
ambulances. Medical investigators would later confirm that the bodies were
those of the missing men: James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew
The trial that followed was a milestone in the civil rights era. A Justice
Department team led by John Doar prosecuted eighteen Klan conspirators,
including the Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff of Philadelphia, for violating the
civil rights of the three young workers. Despite facing an all-white jury
and a segregationist judge who once called a group of black witnesses in a civil
rights case "chimpanzees," Doar succeeded in winning the first convictions
ever recorded in a civil rights case in Mississippi, the hard heart of white
The film "Mississippi Burning" portrayed the FBI as the heroes of this
story, and the FBI--not often aggressive in its investigation of civil rights
abuses at the time-did do commendable work in Mississippi thirty-six years ago. But
the real heroes of this story (besides, of course, the the three men who gave
their lives in a great cause) are John Doar and his superiors in the Justice
Department who decided that an example must be set--and then did the hard
work to see that it was.
University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
It was an old-fashioned
lynching, carried out with the help of county officials, that came to symbolize
hardcore resistance to integration. Dead were three civil rights
workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. All three
shot in the dark of night on a lonely road in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
Many people predicted such a tragedy when the Mississippi Summer Project,
an effort that would bring hundreds of college-age volunteers to "the most
totalitarian state in the country" was announced in April, 1964.
The FBI's all-out search for the conspirators who killed the three young
men, depicted in the movie "Mississippi Burning
was successful, leading three years later to a trial in the courtroom
of one of America's most determined segregationist judges.
the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan of Mississippi,
sent word in May, 1964 to the Klansmen of Lauderdale and Neshoba counties
that it was time to "activate Plan 4." Plan 4 provided for "the elimination"
of the despised civil rights activist Michael Schwerner,
who the Klan called "Goatee" or "Jew-Boy." Schwerner, the first white
civil rights worker based outside of the capitol of Jackson, had earned
the enmity of the Klan by organizing a black boycott of a white-owned business
and aggressively trying to register blacks in and around Meridian to vote.
The Klan's first attempt to eliminate
Schwerner came on June 16, 1964 in the rural Neshoba County community of
Longdale [LINK TO MAP]. Schwerner had
visited Longdale on Memorial Day to ask permission of the black congregation
at Mount Zion Church to use their church as the site of a "Freedom School."
The Klan knew of Schwerner's Memorial Day visit to Longdale and expected
him to return for a business meeting held at the church on the evening
of June 16. About 10 p.m., when the Mount Zion meeting broke
up, seven black men and three black women left the building to discover
thirty men lined up in military fashion with rifles and shotguns.
More men were gathered at the rear of the church. Frustrated when
their search for "Jew-Boy" was unsuccessful, some of the Klan members began
beating the departing blacks. Ten gallons of diesel fuel were removed
from one of the Klan members cars and spread around the inside of the church.
Mount Zion Church was soon engulfed in flames.
News of the beatings and fire
reached Michael Schwerner in Oxford, Ohio. Schwerner and his
twenty-one-year-old chief aide , a native black Meridian named James
Chaney, were in Ohio to attend a three-day program sponsored by the
National Council of Churches to train recruits for the Mississippi Summer
Project. Among those being trained for a summer of work aimed at
improving the lives of black Mississippians was a Queens College
student named Andrew Goodman, who Schwerner
convinced to come to Meridian. Anxious to get back to Mississippi to learn
what they could about the disturbing events in Longdale, Schwerner, Chaney,
and the newly-recruited Goodman loaded into a blue CORE-owned Ford station
wagon in the early morning hours of June 20 for long trip back to Meridian.
The next day, after a short night's sleep and a breakfast in Meridian,
the three civil rights workers were again in the CORE wagon heading northwest
Longdale was in Neshoba County,
known as a high risk area for civil rights workers. Lawrence
Rainey, Neshoba County Sheriff, and his deputy, Cecil
Price, were both members of the Klan. Although their Klan membership
was not generally known, both had reputations as being tough on blacks.
Rainey had been elected sheriff the previous November after campaigning
as "the man who can cope with situations that might arise." In Neshoba
County, it was well understood that the "situations" Rainey referred to
meant meddlesome interference by outsiders with Mississippi's state-enforced
policy of segregation. Schwerner told Meridian CORE worker Sue Brown
that they should be back in the CORE office in Meridian by 4:00.
If they weren't back by 4:30, she should start making phone calls.
Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman
began their Midsummer's Day visit to Neshoba County with an inspection
of the burned out remains of Mount Zion Church. They then visited
the homes of four black members of the congregation to learn more about
the incident. At one of the homes, the three civil rights workers
were warned that a group of white men were looking for them. About
3 p.m., the trio was ready to head back to the relative safety of their
Meridian office. There were two possible routes to Meridian.
The most direct route was the road they had come up, Highway 491, a narrow
clay road intersected by numerous dirt roads. An ambush would be
easy on 491. The other, less direct route, was a black topped Highway
16, which would take them west through Philadelphia, the county seat.
Chaney turned onto Highway 16.
Deputy Sheriff Price was at that
time heading east on Highway 16. A few miles outside of Philadephia,
Price spotted the well-known CORE wagon heading in his direction.
Schwerner and Goodman most like were crouched low in their seats, allowing
Price to see only the black driver, James Chaney. Price shouted over
his radio, "I've got a good one! George Raymond!" (Raymond was a
black civil rights leader hated by Klan throughout Mississippi.)
Price did a quick U-turn and headed back after his quarry. Chaney
pulled the CORE wagon over to the side of the road just inside the Philadelphia
city limits. Price arrested Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, allegedly
for suspicion of having been involved in the church arson, and deposited
the three in the Neshoba County jail.
Soon thereafter he met with the Neshoba County Klan kleagle, or recruiter,
Edgar Ray Killen to tell him of his exciting catch and to plan the
deadly conspiracy that would unfold later that night.
Some of what happened over the
next seven hours in the Neshoba County jail is known. We know that
Schwerner asked to make a phone call, but his request was denied.
If he wasn't concerned about his physical well-being before that time,
he would have been then. We also know that a call was made to the
jail at 5:20 in the afternoon asking whether anyone there had information
concerning the whereabouts of the three overdue civil rights workers.
We know also that the jailer who answered the call, Minnie Herring, lied.
We know that shortly after 10:00 P.M. Cecil Price showed up at the jail,
telling the jailer, "Chaney wants to pay off-- we'll let him pay
off and release them all." Price led them to their parked car, then
tailed them as they headed east out of town on Highway 19.
The three civil rights workers
by then no doubt suspected that they were being led into a trap, and in
fact they were. Since receiving word from Price that Schwerner had
been captured, Edgar Ray Killen, the Klan kleagle and an ordained Baptist
minister, had been busy recruiting members of the Neshoba and Lauderdale
County klaverns for some "butt ripping," as he put it. An afternoon
meeting at the Longhorn Drive-In in Meridian with local Klan bigwigs was
followed by a later meeting at Akin's Mobile Homes with eager, younger
members who would participate in the actual killings. Killen told
the dozen or more recruits to buy rubber gloves and to be in Philadelphia
by 8:15 P. M. After offering the Klan men a drive-by tour of the
Neshoba County jail and going over the details of the planned release,
Killen headed off to see a departed uncle at the local funeral home and
to thereby establish his alibi.
After following the CORE station
wagon out of town, Price returned to Philadelphia to drop off an accompanying
Philadelphia police officer, then raced back onto Highway 19 in pursuit
of the three civil rights workers. Meanwhile, two other cars filled
with young Klan members were also speeding down with the same object in
mind. Price's souped-up Chevy saw the CORE wagon come into
view less than ten miles from the county line. Chaney decided to
run for it, and a high speed chase ensued. Chaney swerved quickly
onto Highway 492, but Price made the turn as well. Seconds later,
for reasons unknown, Chaney braked his car and the three surrendered.
According to James
Jordan, a Klan member who would later become a key FBI informant, Price
said, "I thought you were going back to Meridian if we let you out of jail?"
When Chaney said that's where they were headed, Price said, "You sure were
taking the long way around. Get out of the car." The three
were placed in Deputy Price's car. Soon three cars, Price's and two
full of Klan members, were traveling in a procession down an unmarked dirt
turnoff called Rock Cut Road.
It is not known whether the three
were beaten before they were killed. Klan informants deny that they
were, but there is some physical evidence to the contrary. What is
known is that a twenty-six-year-old dishonorably discharged ex-Marine,
Roberts, was the trigger man, shooting first Schwerner, then Goodman,
then Chaney, all at point blank range. (FBI informant James Jordan, according
to a second informant present at the killings, Doyle Barnette, also fired
two shots at Chaney.) The bodies of the three civil rights workers
were taken to a dam site at the 253-acre Old Jolly Farm. The farm
was owned by Philadelphia businessman Olen Burrage who reportedly had announced
at a Klan meeting when the impending arrival in Mississippi of an army
of civil rights workers was discussed, "Hell, I've got a dam that'll hold
a hundred of them." The bodies were placed together in a a hollow
at the dam site and then covered with tons of dirt by a Caterpillar D-4.
While the bodies were being buried,
Price had returned to his duties in Philadelphia. Around 12:30 A.
M., Price met with Sheriff Rainey. Given their Klan membership and
the close relationship between the two, it is almost imaginable that
at that time Price did not relate, in full detail, the events following
the release from jail of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney.
At the CORE office in Meridian,
meanwhile, staffers were growing increasingly concerned about the long
overdue civil rights workers. Calls inquiring about their whereabouts
turned up no helpful information. At 12:30 A.M., a call was placed
to John Doar, the Justice Department's point man
in Mississippi. Less than a week earlier Doar had been in Oxford,
Ohio warning Summer Project volunteers that there was "no federal police
force" that could protect them from expected trouble in Mississippi.
Doar feared the worst. By 6:00 A.M., Doar had invested the FBI with
the power to investigate a possible violation of federal law.
The morning after the civil rights
worker's disappearance, the phone rang in the office of Meridian-based
FBI agent John Proctor. (In the movie
"Mississippi Burning," the character played by Gene Hackman is loosely
based on Proctor.) Within hours, Proctor was in Neshoba County interviewing
blacks, community leaders, Sheriff Rainey, and Deputy Price. Proctor
was a Alabama native who had successfully cultivated relationships with
all sorts of people, including local law enforcement officers, who might
aid in his investigations. After his interview with Cecil Price,
the Deputy slapped Proctor on the back and said, "Hell, John, let's have
a drink." Price went to his car and pulled contraband liquor out
of his trunk.
By the next day, June 23, Proctor
had been joined by ten newly arrived special agents and Harry Maynor, his
New Orleans-based supervisor. The first big break in the FBI investigation,
called MIBURN (for "Mississippi Burning"), came when Proctor received a
tip that a smoldering car had been seen in northeast Neshoba County.
While Proctor was at the scene, searching the area around what turned out
to be the burned blue CORE station wagon, he looked up to see Joseph
Sullivan, the FBI's Major Case Inspector. It was by then abundantly
clear that the Johnson Administration was placing top priority on the case.
By June 25, the federal military had joined the search, with busloads of
sailors arriving in Neshoba County to beat their way through snake-infested
swamps and woods. Days later, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would fly to
Jackson to announce the opening of the FBI's first office in Mississippi.
It soon became apparent to Inspector
Sullivan the case "would ultimately be solved by conducting an investigation
rather than a search." It turned out to be an extraordinarily difficult
investigation. Neshoba County residents, many of whom either participated
in the conspiracy or knew of it, were tight-lipped. Proctor found
that some of his most useful information came from kids, so he would stuff
candy in his pockets before setting out for a day's schedule of interviews.
A promise of $30,000 in reward money finally brought forward information,
passed through an intermediary, concerning the location of the bodies.
On August 4, 1964, John Proctor was at the Old Jolly Farm to take photographs
of the bodies as they were uncovered at the dam site. Inspector Sullivan
invited Price to the dam site to help in the removal of the bodies.
Sullivan was interested in observing the reaction of the Deputy, who was
by then under heavy suspicion. Proctor noted that "Price picked up
a shovel and dug right in, and gave no indication whatsoever that any of
it bothered him."
Finally it would be informants
from within the Klan that would break the case open. The first information,
from an Klan member at the peripherary of the conspiracy, enabled the FBI
to focus on the more central figures. One Klan member who received
a great deal of attention from John Proctor was James Jordan, a Meridian
speakeasy owner. Over the course of five increasingly rough interviews,
Jordan came to see turning state's evidence as his best bet to avoid a
long prison term. He was also promised $3500 and help in relocating
himself and his family in return for his full story. Jordan would
become the government's key witness to the crime.
By December, 1964, the Justice
Department had enough information to authorize arrests. On the drizzly
morning of December 4, a team of federal agents swept through Neshoba
and Lauderdale Counties arresting nineteen men for conspiring to deprive
Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman of their civil rights under color of state
law. Six days later, a U. S. Commissioner dismissed the charges,
declaring that the confession on which the arrests were based was hearsay
evidence. A month later, government attorneys secured indictments against
the conspirators from a federal grand jury in Jackson. The Justice
Department was again disappointed, however, when on February 24, 1965,
Judge William Harold Cox, an ardent segregationist, threw out the indictments
against all conspirators other than Rainey and Price on the ground that
the other seventeen were not acting "under color of state law." In
March, 1966, the United States Supreme Court overruled Cox and reinstated
the indictments [LINK TO SUPREME COURT DECISION].
As the Justice Department prepared for trial, defense attorneys made the
cynical argument that the original indictments were flawed because the
pool of jurors from which the grand jury was drawn contained insufficient
numbers of minorities. Rather than attempt to refute the charge,
the government summoned a new grand jury and, on February 28, 1967, won
reindictments. The list of those indicted differed slightly from
the original list, and included the names of eighteen Klansmen.
Trial in the case of United States
versus Cecil Price et al. began on October 7, 1967 in the Meridian courtroom
of Judge William Cox. Chief Prosecutor John Doar and other government
attorneys had reason to be concerned about Cox. Cox, appointed as
an effort to appease powerful Judiciary Committee Chairman (and former
roommate of Cox at Ole Miss) Senator James Eastland, had been a constant
source of problems for Justice Department lawyers (especially John Doar)
who were seeking to enforce civil rights laws in Mississippi. In
one incident, Judge Cox referred to a group of African Americans set to
testify in a voting rights case as "a bunch of chimpanzees."\
A jury of seven white men and
five white women, ranging in ages from 34 to 67, was selected
[link to list of jurors]. Defense attorneys exercised peremptory challenges
against all twelve potential black jurors. A white man, who admitted
under questioning by Robert Hauberg, the U.S. Attorney for Mississippi,
that he had been a member of the KKK "a couple of years ago," was challenged
for cause. Judge Cox denied the challenge.
The defense made a major mistake
as John Doar presented background witnesses for the prosecution.
When Doar finished his direct examination of Reverend Charles Johnson,
who worked with Schwerner, Defense Attorney Laurel Weir launched into a
series of outrageous questions culminating with a question asking whether
Johnson had sought to "get young Negro males to sign a pledge to rape a
white woman once a week during the hot summer of 1964?" Judge Cox
broke in to say that such a question was "highly improper" unless the defense
could show a reason for posing it. When Weir said the question had
been passed to him in writing, Cox demanded to know who wrote it.
Finally one of the defense attorneys admitted that "Brother Killen,'' defendant
Edgar Ray Killen, had written the question. The incident made clear
to the defendants that Judge Cox, who may have mellowed somewhat after
a recent unsuccessful impeachment effort against him in Congress, was taking
the trial seriously.
The heart of the government's
case was presented through the testimony of three Klan informants, Wallace
Miller, Delmar Dennis, and James Jordan.
Miller described the organization of the Lauderdale klavern and described
his conversations with Exalted Cyclops Frank Herndon and Kleagle Edgar
Ray Killen about the June 21 operation in Neshoba County. Dennis
incriminated Sam Bowers, the founder and Imperial Wizard of the White Knights
of the KKK of Mississippi. Dennis quoted Bowers as having said after
the killing of Schwerner and the two others, "It was the first time that
Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew." It
was also through Dennis that the government introduced the contents a letter
written by Bowers but pretending to be from an official of a logging company
referring to the murders as "the big logging operation" and to the suspects
of the FBI investigation as "those deep in the swamp
[LINK TO KKK LOGGING LETTER]." At another point in his testimony,
Dennis described a Klan meeting in the pasture of Klan member Clayton Lewis.
He then pointed to Lewis, the mayor of Philadelphia, sitting at the defense
table as a member of the twelve-man defense team. James Jordan was the
government's only witness to the actual killings. Fearing a Klan
assassination, the government had arranged to have Jordan hustled into
court by five agents with guns drawn. After first requiring hospitalization
for hyperventilating, and then collapsing and having to be carried from
the courtroom on a stretcher, an obviously nervous Jordan finally made
it to the witness stand. Jordan described the events of June 21 and
the early morning of June 22, from the gathering of Klan members in Meridian
to the burial of the bodies at the Old Jolly Farm. His vivid testimony
caused one black female spectator to break down and have to be led from
the courtroom, sobbing.
The defense case consisted of
a series of alibi and character witnesses. Local residents testified
as to the "reputation for truth and veracity" of various defendants, or
to having seen them on June 21 at locations such as funeral homes
John Doar presented the closing
argument for the government on October 18. Doar told the jury that
"this was a calculated, cold-blooded plot. Three men, hardly more than
boys were its victims." Pointing at Price, Doar said that "Price
used the machinery of law, his office, his power, his authority, his badge,
his uniform, his jail, his police car, his police gun, he used them all
to take, to hold, to capture and kill." Doar concluded by telling
jurors that what he and the other lawyers said "will soon be forgotten,
but what you twelve do here today will long be remembered."
One day after having begun its
deliberations, the jury reported to Judge Cox that it was deeply divided
and unable to reach a verdict. Over defense objections, the judge
responding by giving the jury what is called the "Allen charge," or the
"dynamite charge," for its purpose of breaking open a deadlocked jury.
Shortly after Cox gave his charge, defendant Wayne Roberts joked to Cecil
Price, "We've got some dynamite for them ourselves." The remark was
overheard by a court officer and reported to the judge.
On the morning of October 20,
1967, the jury returned with its verdict. The verdict on its face
appears to be the result of a compromise. Seven defendants, mostly
from Lauderdale County, were convicted. The list of convicted men
included Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, trigger
man Wayne Roberts, Jimmy Snowden, Billey Wayne Posey, and Horace Barnett.
Eight men, mostly from Neshoba County, were acquitted, including Sheriff
Lawrence Rainey, burial site owner Olen Burrage, and Exalted Cyclops Frank
Herndon. In three cases, including that of Edgar Ray Killen, the
jury was unable to reach a verdict [LINK
TO ARTICLES ABOUT JURY DELIBERATIONS]. The convictions in the
case represented the first ever convictions in Mississippi for the killing
of a civil rights worker. The New York Times called the verdict "a
measure of the quiet revolution that is taking place in southern attitudes."
On December 29, Judge Cox imposed
sentences. Roberts and Bowers got ten years, Posey and Price got
six years, and the other three convicted defendants got four. Cox
said of his sentences, "They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man--
I gave them all what I thought they deserved."
After serving four years of his
six-year sentence, Cecil Price rejoined his family in Philadelphia.
In a 1977 New York Times Magazine interview, Price revealed that he recently
watched and enjoyed the television show "Roots." His views on integration
had changed, he said. "We've got to accept this is the way things
are going to be and that's it."
University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
For information and documentation, see Professor Linder's Web site on The Mississippi Burning Trial.
© 2000 by Douglas Linder. All rights reserved.