The summer of '64

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FOR MANY who are old enough to remember, the summer of 1964 was particularly poignant. It was called "Freedom Summer," in recognition of the hundreds of volunteers who went to Mississippi to register blacks to vote. But amid the hope, promise and sheer determination that prompted so many, mostly college students, to give up their summer to help reverse decades of disenfranchisement of African-Americans, came the cold reality of sacrifice: Three of those fearless workers would also give up their lives.

Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, both white, came from New York. On June 21, along with James Chaney, 21, a black volunteer from Meridian, Miss., they investigated a firebombed church near Philadelphia, Miss. After being arrested for allegedly speeding in Neshoba County, they were held long enough for a posse to be assembled. Then they were ambushed on a dark, lonely road by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

At first, what the country -- and the world -- knew was that they had disappeared. In the days and weeks that followed, the media, as de facto public investigators, tried to piece the story together while the families, fellow workers and an anxious nation watched and waited. As time continued to pass, the realization mounted that they were probably dead. Still, when the bodies were found more than 40 days later in an earthen dam, and it was clear that they had been beaten and shot, it was a wrenching blow to the nation's sensibility.

Some had thought there was so much publicity surrounding "Freedom Summer" and its noble cause that the backward forces in Mississippi wouldn't dare strike. But strike they did. By the end of the summer, according to one report, three other volunteers had also lost their lives, another 35 had been shot, 80 had been beaten, and 68 church bombings had been recorded. Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner became the most public symbols of that brutality, reminding the rest of us how precious -- and dangerous -- the right to vote can be. Their deaths helped cement support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But for years, their deaths were not fully resolved. In 1967, after Mississippi officials failed to go after the killers, federal officials brought charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights against 18 people, including Edgar Ray Killen, a local preacher and Ku Klux Klan member. Efforts by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to ferret out what really happened that night were fictionalized in the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning. In reality, although seven members of the Klan were convicted on the federal charges and sentenced to terms ranging from three to 10 years, none served more than six years. The case against Mr. Killen ended in a hung jury. And the question always lingered: Would all those who were responsible ever be brought to justice?

The media again played an important role in keeping the case alive. In 1999, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson published excerpts from a secret interview given by one of the men convicted in the federal trial. Sam Bowers, a former Klan leader, said in the interview that he did not mind going to prison on federal conspiracy charges because a fellow Klansman had gotten away with murder. But yesterday, after an intensive investigation by the state attorney general, Mr. Killen, now 79, was formally charged in state court with three counts of murder. Seven others who are suspected of being involved are still alive, and more arrests are possible.

For Americans -- black and white -- who recall the heat and tension of that summer, it is a bittersweet victory. Why did it have to take so long for the state to bring charges? But it's a welcome sign of progress that, after four decades, Mississippi acted.

While justice for Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner has clearly been delayed, hope in justice may finally be restored.

-- Diane Camper

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