Friday, June 20, 2014

Fifty Years Since the Freedom Summer Murders

"Mississippi seems almost too small a state to torment the conscience of the nation so deeply. Two little communities live there, entirely separated, hating and fearing each other in a condition of total lawlessness and immorality. ... [F]or three centuries, they have had only animal relations with each other, and all politics, all decision, is magnetized by the primordial fact of race hatred."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1964"

In 1964, Ole Miss history professor James Silver labeled Mississippi the "closed society," and, as historian William Manchester observed, "it became clear as the 1960s progressed that an astonishing number of its people, white and black, were actually unaware of the civil rights movement. There were no attacks on the freedom riders there because the state police did not allow them the freedom of movement necessary to be mobbed."

As hard as it may be for most 21st–century people, even those living in Mississippi, to understand, Mississippi seemed to exist under a huge bubble in those days. If they weren't aware of the civil rights movement before, though, Mississippians started to become aware of it 50 years ago tomorrow.

It was on that day in 1964 that three civil rights activists — two Northern white men and a Mississippi black man — went missing in Neshoba County, Miss. After training in Ohio for what was being called "Freedom Summer" — and being given explicit instructions for what to do if they encountered any local resistance — more than 200 volunteers departed for the South on June 19 and arrived on June 21.

"Almost immediately," wrote Manchester, "three of them were reported missing."

In hindsight, the scenarios that were suggested while the three were officially missing — their bodies were found about six weeks after their disappearance — may seem outlandish, but, at the time, they probably seemed thoroughly plausible to white Southerners who were openly fearful of intervention by "outside agitators."

While the search went on, as lakes and rivers were being dragged and helicopters were doing aerial reconnaissance, rumors were spread that the three had actually gone to Cuba or Chicago, where they were laughing at all the fuss their "disappearance" had caused.

If only that had been true.

In reality, what had happened was that the three were taken into custody that afternoon for allegedly speeding. They were held for about six hours while the execution squad was assembled, then they were released after reportedly paying a fine. They were never seen alive again.

Here is what happened, according to the story that emerged after their bodies were found.

Shortly after their release, the men were stopped by the execution squad. They were taken to a remote location and shot at point–blank range; the black man was savagely beaten before he was shot. Their bodies were buried near the base of a dam and not found for weeks; their car was burned and left on an abandoned logging road. It was found the day after the three disappeared.

In the early weeks of the search for the three missing civil rights workers, the prevailing opinion among white Mississippians, Manchester wrote, was that the searchers "had no expectation of finding the youths. They were there ... to win Negro votes for President Johnson" in his campaign against Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater.

(That wouldn't help in Mississippi. Comparatively few blacks voted in Mississippi in those days — but, since Mississippi gave Goldwater more than 87% of its vote, Johnson probably didn't expect to carry Mississippi, anyway.)

Eventually the searchers did find the bodies after the case had drawn national attention. In the account of the killings that emerged, the deputy sheriff addressed the men after the bodies were buried. "You've struck a blow for the white man," he said. "Mississippi can be proud of you." Then he warned them all to remain silent — or risk certain death.

Three years later, the case led to the conviction in federal court of seven members of the execution squad for depriving the men of their rights.

It was the first successful prosecution of a civil rights case in Mississippi.

If you're one of the so–called "millennials," that might not seem so special. But let's put it into some perspective.

When America was founded, the Founding Fathers wanted the states to have most of the say over how things were done within their state boundaries. Thus, most criminal charges, like homicide and theft, were — and still are — state charges. The federal courts get involved only when an alleged crime involves a federal law or cases reach the federal level in the appeals process.

These murders were committed at a time when juries in Mississippi — and most of the South, for that matter — routinely acquitted white defendants charged with killing blacks.

Federal authorities knew this so they used the strategy of prosecuting in federal court with the strongest charge in their arsenal — depriving the victims of their civil rights.

Compared to depriving someone of life, that may not seem like much, but it was that or nothing. Prosecutors operated on the belief that something was better than nothing.

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