Mississippi Burning

Obit of the Day: “One Who Escaped Justice”

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were volunteers who headed to the segregated South in the summer of 1964, “Freedom Summer,” attempting to register black residents to vote. On their first day in Mississippi, June 21, they visited a black church that was burned down under suspicious circumstances. 

Later that day they were arrested for speeding by Sheriff Cecil Price and brought to the county jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi. At 10:00 p.m. that evening the three men were released - they did not know that members of the local Ku Klux Klan were waiting for them. They were pulled over, dragged out of their car, beaten, shot and buried in an earthen dam. The dam was on the land of Olen Burrage.

The following day, June 22, 1964, the FBI begins an investigation. (The referred to the case as “Mississippi Burning.”) They would interview 1000 people. On August 2, 1964 the bodies of the three men were discovered on Burrage’s land.

Nineteen men were arrested after a confession from Horace Barnette, who was involved in the planning and murder. Seven men were convicted, none serving more than six years. Nine were acquitted, including Olen Burrage, and the jury could not come to a verdict on three others.

Olen Burrage, who Horace Barnette claimed was the person to set fire to the workers’ car and helped bury the bodies, died on March 15, 2013 at the age of 82. James Chaney’s brother, Ben, had been pushing prosecutors to re-open the case against Burrage as had happened with others previously acquitted. (Because of double jeopardy the men were charged with different crimes or charged in Federal court rather than local.)

It was U.S. Attorney Doug Jones who said “The window to true justice in these cases is closing. Today is just another example of one who escaped justice, and we’ll just have to rely on a higher power now to bring justice.”

Sources: Miami Herald and the excellent “Mississippi Burning” Trial site run by the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

(Image of a speaking event held at the New Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana less than four weeks after the bodies of Mr. Schwerner, Mr. Chaney, and Mr. Goodman were discovered. It featured James Chaney’s mother, Fanny and was organized by CORE - Congress of Racial Equality. It is courtesy of B I R D on flickriver.com)

Mississippi Burning: The life and death of my cousin, Andrew Goodman

June 21 is the 50th anniversary of the death of my cousin, Andrew Goodman. He was one of three young voting rights activist murdered by the KKK while trying to register blacks to vote in the summer of 1964.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this blog talking about significant Jewish figures in the arts and sciences. But I haven’t spent much time talking about Jewish activists. We have a long, strong history of activism. “Justice, Justice you Shall Pursue” is one of the most frequently spoken biblical passages I hear pass around by my fellow Jews. I’m not going to post a whole bunch of these posts in a quick burst like I did for music or movies. Instead, I’m going to simply try to post one article every now and then for people to soak in and appreciate.

For my fist selection I decided to choose Andrew Goodman, who was murdered by the KKK while registering Black voters during the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi along with fellow activists James Chaney and Michael Schwermer. Why? Because I see his Jewishness constantly erased in favor of his Whiteness. I think it’s important to emphasize the Jewish part of his identity. When you read this article, pay attention the number of Jewish figures that inspired Goodman. This is not by accident. 

A common tactic of anti-semites is to judge us by the worst among us and to assimilate away the Jewishness of the best of us. This is going to be part of my ongoing efforts to counter-balance that tactic by highlighting Jews who made a difference.


Mississippi Burning (1988) Alan Parker

“This whole thing is so ugly. Have you any idea what it’s like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it”

You need to ask questions and you need to ask the right questions. Alan asked me how I saw the man and I said, ‘I saw him as Abraham Lincoln –- I don’t see him as a villain. This man is a hero with his agenda, with his point of view.’ I did not intend to play Clayton Townley as one chromosome short of a human being, like a lot of people will play various villains in movies … In real life, everyone kind of sees themselves as the good guy, doing what they’re doing. They see themselves as a kind of hero, and I wanted to make sure Clayton Townley … wasn’t played as some kind of genetic miscreant.

Freedom Summer or the Mississippi Summer Project was a time of great intrigue and courage.  Black and White Americans who witnessed the horrors of Jim Crow, attempted to change America for the better.  Freedom Summer is primarily recognized by three key events: the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP); the establishment of Freedom Schools along with the registration of Black voters; and the brutal murder of three civil rights workers.

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers investigated the burning of a Black church, where a civil rights rally took place days earlier.  James Chaney, 21 year-old Black Mississippi college student, and two White New Yorkers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Andrew Goodman, age 20 and Michael Schwerner, age 24 were arrested and placed in jail for “speeding” by the local police.  The men were released after dark into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan….

Read the full story on the National Archives’ “Rediscovering Black History” blog.