On this day in 1964, a shallow grave was discovered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by members of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the US Navy. Located in Mississippi’s dense, swampy backcountry, the grave contained the bodies of three men: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, all civil rights activists from New York City. In the spring of 1964, the men had begun a tour of the South with the intention of encouraging Black communities to vote. In June, the men learned of the torching of Mount Zion – a Black church in rural Neshoba – and went to investigate. As they set off on their journey, Schwerner asked a colleague to “start trying to locate us” if the group failed to return by 4pm on the 20th of June. By sunrise the next day, the men had gone missing.
Unbeknownst to the three activists, Mississippi’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, a violent white supremacist organization with deep roots in American law enforcement, had been tracking their movements for some time. The burning of Mount Zion had been planned to lure the activists into rural Neshoba, where the civil rights movement was deeply unpopular. As they wrapped up their visit to the church and headed home, the group – having spent the night in jail for speeding – desperately tried to outrun their pursuers. As they began to run low on gas, the lynch mob closed in, aided by the use of police radios. Eventually, the terrified activists were cut off on Highway 19 and driven to a rural intersection. The three men were beaten and shot, and Chaney (the only Black member of their group) was castrated; investigators later concluded that Goodman had been buried alive. Their bodies were dumped into a pre-dug grave, and their vehicle was torched. As the mob began heading home, Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Ray Rice remarked “Well, boys, you’ve done a good job. You’ve struck a blow for the white man.”
Despite the best efforts of Rice and his accomplices – who numbered, potentially, in the hundreds – word quickly spread of the so-called Mississippi Burning murders. Under mounting pressure from American civil rights groups and the public at large, president Lyndon B. Johnson urged the FBI to devote extensive resources to the hunt for the missing men. Eventually, an informant nicknamed “Mr X” came forward with information that led to the discovery of the shallow grave in Neshoba County. Deputy Sheriff Rice was arrested and charged along with eighteen others; another man was only charged in 2005, and countless others who took part in the 1964 lynching likely escaped justice. Although the details of the Mississippi Burning murders are particularly shocking, it’s important to remember that a great number of similar lynchings took place in this and other Southern states in the decades following the abolition of slavery.