The KKK and a "Fiery Cross"; image from the 1920s
In the early 1960s, the state of Mississippi, as well as most of the American South, defied federal direction regarding racial integration. Recent United States Supreme Court rulings had upset the Mississippi establishment, and white Mississippian society responded with open hostility. Bombings, murders, vandalism, and intimidation were tactics used by white supremacists in order to discourage black Mississippians and their supporters from the Northern and Western states. In 1961, Freedom Riders, who challenged the segregation of interstate buses and related facilities, were attacked on their route. In September 1962, the University of Mississippi riots had occurred in order to prevent James Meredith from enrolling at the school.
The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a Ku Klux Klan splinter group based in Mississippi, was founded and led by Samuel Bowers of Laurel. As the summer of 1964 approached, white Mississippians prepared for what they perceived was an invasion from the north and west. College students had been recruited in order to aid local activists who were conducting grassroots community organizing, voter registration education and drives in the state. Media reports exaggerated the number of youths expected. One Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) representative is quoted as saying that nearly 30,000 individuals would visit Mississippi during the summer. Such reports had a "jarring impact" on white Mississippians and many responded by joining the White Knights. More belligerent than other KKK groups, the White Knights soon attracted a following of nearly 10,000 white Mississippians.
In 1890, Mississippi had passed a new constitution, supported by additional laws, which effectively excluded most black Mississippians from registering or voting. This status quo had long been enforced by economic boycotts and violence. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) wanted to address this problem by setting up Freedom Schools and starting voting registration drives in the state. Freedom schools were established in order to educate, encourage, and register the disenfranchised black citizens. CORE members James Chaney, from Mississippi, and Michael Schwerner from New York intended to set up a Freedom School for black people in Neshoba County to try to prepare them to pass the comprehension and literacy tests required by the state.
poster created by the FBI
in 1964, shows the photographs of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner.
Registering others to vote
On Memorial Day 1964, Schwerner and Chaney spoke to the congregation at Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi about setting up a Freedom School. Schwerner implored the members to register to vote, saying, "you have been slaves too long, we can help you help yourselves". The White Knights learned of Schwerner's voting drive in Neshoba County and soon developed a plot to hinder the work and ultimately destroy their efforts. The White Knights wanted to lure CORE workers to Neshoba County, so they attacked congregation members and torched the church, burning it to the ground.
On June 21, 1964, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner met at the Meridian COFO headquarters before traveling to Longdale to investigate the destruction of the Mount Zion Church. Schwerner told COFO Meridian to search for them if they were not back by 4 p.m.; he said, "if we're not back by then start trying to locate us."
After visiting Longdale, the three civil rights workers decided not to take road 491 to return to Meridian. The narrow country road was unpaved; abandoned buildings littered the roadside. They decided to head west on Highway 16 to Philadelphia, the seat of Neshoba County, then take southbound Highway 19 to Meridian, figuring it would be the faster route. The time was approaching three in the afternoon, and they were to be in Meridian by four.
The CORE station wagon had barely passed the Philadelphia city limits when one of its tires went flat, and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price turned on his dashboard-mounted red light and followed them. The trio stopped near the Beacon and Main Street fork. With a long radio antenna mounted to his patrol car, Price called for officer Harry Jackson Wiggs and Earl Robert Poe of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Chaney was arrested for driving 65 mph in a 35 mph zone; Goodman and Schwerner were held for investigation. They were taken to the Neshoba County jail on Myrtle Street, a block from the courthouse.
In the Meridian office, workers became alarmed when the 4 p.m. deadline passed without word from the three activists. By 4:45 p.m., they notified the COFO Jackson office that the trio had not returned from Neshoba County. The CORE workers called area authorities but did not learn anything; the contacted offices said they had not seen the civil rights workers.