Year
1964
Month Day
August 04

Slain civil rights workers found

The remains of three civil rights workers whose disappearance on June 21 garnered national attention are found buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white New Yorkers, had traveled to heavily segregated Mississippi in 1964 to help organize civil rights efforts on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The third man, James Chaney, was a local African American man who had joined CORE in 1963. The disappearance of the three young men led to a massive FBI investigation that was code-named MIBURN, for “Mississippi Burning.”

Michael Schwerner, who arrived in Mississippi as a CORE field worker in January 1964, aroused the animosity of white supremacists after he organized a successful boycott of a variety store in the city of Meridian and led voting registration efforts for African Americans. In May, Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, sent word that the 24-year-old Schwerner, nicknamed “Goatee” and “Jew-Boy” by the KKK, was to be eliminated. On the evening of June 16, two dozen armed Klansmen descended on Mt. Zion Methodist Church, an African American church in Neshoba County that Schwerner had arranged to use as a “Freedom School.” Schwerner was not there at the time, but the Klansmen beat several African Americans present and then torched the church.

On June 20, Schwerner returned from a civil rights training session in Ohio with 21-year-old James Chaney and 20-year-old Andrew Goodman, a new recruit to CORE. The next day—June 21—the three went to investigate the burning of the church in Neshoba. While attempting to drive back to Meridian, they were stopped by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price just inside the city limits of Philadelphia, the county seat. Price, a member of the KKK who had been looking out for Schwerner or other civil rights workers, threw them in the Neshoba County jail, allegedly under suspicion for church arson.

After seven hours in jail, during which the men were not allowed to make a phone call, Price released them on bail. After escorting them out of town, the deputy returned to Philadelphia to drop off an accompanying Philadelphia police officer. As soon as he was alone, he raced down the highway in pursuit of the three civil rights workers. He caught the men just inside county limits and loaded them into his car. Two other cars pulled up filled with Klansmen who had been alerted by Price of the capture of the CORE workers, and the three cars drove down an unmarked dirt road called Rock Cut Road. Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were shot to death and their bodies buried in an earthen dam a few miles from the Mt. Zion Methodist Church.

The next day, the FBI began an investigation into the disappearance of the civil rights workers. On June 23, the case drew national headlines, and federal agents found the workers’ burned station wagon. Under pressure from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the FBI escalated the investigation, which eventually involved more than 200 FBI agents and scores of federal troops who combed the woods and swamps looking for the bodies. The incident provided the final impetus needed for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pass Congress on July 2, and eight days later FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover came to Mississippi to open a new Bureau office. Eventually, Delmar Dennis, a Klansman and one of the participants in the murders, was paid $30,000 and offered immunity from prosecution in exchange for information. On August 4, the remains of the three young men were found. The culprits were identified, but the state of Mississippi made no arrests.

Finally, on December 4, nineteen men, including Deputy Price, were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for violating the civil rights of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney (charging the suspects with civil rights violations was the only way to give the federal government jurisdiction in the case). After nearly three years of legal wrangling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately defended the indictments, the men went on trial in Jackson, Mississippi. The trial was presided over by an ardent segregationist, U.S. District Judge William Cox, but under pressure from federal authorities and fearing impeachment, he took the case seriously. On October 27, 1967, an all-white jury found seven of the men guilty, including Price and KKK Imperial Wizard Bowers. Nine were acquitted, and the jury deadlocked on three others. The mixed verdict was hailed as a major civil rights victory, as no one in Mississippi had ever before been convicted for actions taken against a civil rights worker.

In December, Judge Cox sentenced the men to prison terms ranging from three to 10 years. After sentencing, he said, “They killed one n*****, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them what I thought they deserved.” None of the convicted men served more than six years behind bars.

On June 21, 2005, the forty-first anniversary of the three murders, Edgar Ray Killen, was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter. At eighty years of age and best known as an outspoken white supremacist and part-time Baptist minister, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Killen died in 2018.

READ MORE: Civil Rights Movement Timeline

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Dayton, Ohio shooting becomes second mass shooting in 24-hour period

A mass shooting takes place early in the morning in Dayton, Ohio on August 4, 2019. The killing of nine people and the injuries of 27 was significant in its own right, but this mass shooting was particularly notable for being America’s second in less than 24 hours. Just one day ...read more

U.S. and Mexico sign the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement

On August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexico sign the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, creating what is known as the "Bracero Program." The program, which lasted until 1964, was the largest guest-worker program in U.S. history. Throughout its existence, the Bracero Program ...read more

Oscar Pistorius becomes the first amputee runner to compete at the Olympics

On August 4, 2012 in London, Oscar Pistorius of South Africa becomes the first amputee to compete at the Olympics by running in an opening heat of the men’s 400-meter. Pistorius finished second out of five runners and advanced to the semifinals, where he finished eighth out of ...read more

George Washington becomes a Master Mason

George Washington, a young Virginia planter, becomes a Master Mason, the highest basic rank in the secret fraternity of Freemasonry. The ceremony was held at the Masonic Lodge No. 4 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Washington was 21 years old and would soon command his first military ...read more

Lizzie Borden's parents found dead

On August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden are found hacked to death in their Fall River, Massachusetts, home. Andrew was discovered in a pool of blood on the living room couch, his face nearly split in two. Abby was upstairs, her head smashed to pieces; it was later determined ...read more

Anne Frank captured

Acting on tip from a Dutch informer, the Nazi Gestapo captures 15-year-old Jewish diarist Anne Frank and her family in a sealed-off area of an Amsterdam warehouse. The Franks had taken shelter there in 1942 out of fear of deportation to a Nazi concentration camp. They occupied ...read more

Jesse Owens wins long jump–and respect–in Germany

On August 4, 1936, American Jesse Owens wins gold in the long jump at the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. It was the second of four gold medals Owens won in Berlin, as he firmly dispelled German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler’s notion of the superiority of an Aryan “master race,” for ...read more

Colonel Custer and 7th Cavalry attacked by the Sioux

While protecting a railroad survey party in Montana, Custer and his 7th Cavalry clash for the first time with the local Sioux Native Americans, who will defeat them three years later at the Little Big Horn. During the previous two years, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer ...read more

“Talladega Nights” released

“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” an irreverent comedy based in the outlandish (fictionalized) world of American stock car racing, premieres in movie theaters around the United States on August 4, 2006. The comedian Will Ferrell (who also co-wrote the screenplay ...read more

U.S. proclaims neutrality in World War I

As World War I erupts in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson formally proclaims the neutrality of the United States, a position that a vast majority of Americans favored, on August 4, 1914. Wilson’s initial hope that America could be “impartial in thought as well as in action” was ...read more