Since the first headline of Freedom Summer, three faces had stared down America. Across Mississippi and the rest of the South, the faces stared out from general stores and post offices, police stations and banks, federal buildings and courthouses. Across America, the faces appeared in magazines strewn on coffee tables and beach blankets. Occasionally, the faces surfaced again in a TV news update. And as July edged toward August, the faces acquired new meanings. They meant that in rural, “redneck” Mississippi, someone had outsmarted the FBI. They meant that in the world’s most modern nation, proud of its passenger jets, its Mercury astronauts, its Telstar transatlantic phone calls, men could still “disappear.” And for Freedom Summer volunteers, the faces became the very meaning of summer. “How the ghosts of those three shadow all our work,” a volunteer wrote. “ ‘Did you know them?’ I am constantly asked. Did I need to? ”
Many—perhaps most—whites in Mississippi still considered the disappearance a hoax, but after five weeks, their indignation had turned to dismay. “I believe with all my heart they are alive somewhere,” an old woman in Philadelphia said. “We may never know it, but I believe it is so nevertheless.” A downtown merchant voiced a more common concern—“I just hope that if they are dead, they won’t find the bodies anywhere around here.” Others added red-baiting to their suspicions. “If they were murdered,” a man wrote the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, “it is by no means the first case of such disposition by Communists of their dupes to insure their silence. However, the careful absence of clues makes it seem likely that they are quartered in Cuba or another Communist area awaiting their next task. There is no reason to believe them seriously harmed by citizens of the most law-abiding state of the union.”
Aluminum skiffs no longer dredged muddy rivers, but hundreds of sailors were still scouring remote hamlets. Piling out of military buses, search parties set up day camps near Ma and Pa stores, cleared shelves of snacks and bug repellent, then set out into swamps and fields. Locals were shocked. The men didn’t actually expect to find the bodies here? Here in Kemper County? Here in Jasper County? Sailors often answered that they expected to find the three somewhere close by, but they were just bluffing. Aside from the basics—the Sunday-afternoon arrest, the hours in jail, the late-night release, the blackened station wagon—rumors were all searchers had to go on. The most recent said the bodies had been buried in quicksand or thrown into the grinding “hog” of some backwoods sawmill.
FBI agents, having roamed ten counties beneath the Mississippi sun, joked of becoming “real rednecks.” They had learned little about Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney but they had learned all they cared to about Mississippi. Questioning reputed Klansmen, they had learned how the Neshoba klavern had grown since spring, tripling, quadrupling, its membership. They had gathered ample evidence of bootlegging—moonshine, sour-mash stills, and jugs sold on the sly—a vast web of corruption that enriched Klansmen, ranchers, and above all, Sheriff Rainey. And they had learned how routinely “everyone who had been in the county jail had had the stuffing beat out of them.” Yet the FBI could not find three missing men. The latest lead came from a local white woman—“Ask Fannie Jones about her son, Wilmer.”
When FBI agents tracked Wilmer Jones to Chicago’s South Side, his story might have described the first night of summer. Three weeks before the disappearance, Jones had returned to Philadelphia to visit his mother. He had called a store to ask about resizing his high school ring. The next thing he knew, he was accused of asking the store’s pretty clerk out on a date. Taken into custody, Jones met Sheriff Rainey. “Nigger,” Rainey shouted, “did you call up that white girl and ask her for a date?” When Jones shook his head, Rainey lashed out with his meaty hand. Deputy Price got in his own licks before hacking off Jones’s goatee with a pocket knife. Jones trembled until released—at midnight. Waiting outside were five men with pistols and shotguns. While Price and Rainey looked on, the men shoved Jones into a car. In the moonlight hours, they drove him all over winding roads, a pistol jabbed in his neck, shouting questions about the white woman, the “COFOs,” and the NAACP. Finally, the men took Jones to “the place”—an empty well just inside a barbed-wire gate—somewhere in Neshoba County.
The FBI did not care that Wilmer Jones had finally been put on a bus and told never to show his face in Neshoba County again. They wanted to find “the place.” Agents began driving Jones all over the county. Still terrified, he wore a cardboard box on his head, with holes cut for his eyes, until the heat made him groggy. The search went on for two days.
Agents were also tracing a lead from comedian Dick Gregory. In answer to his $25,000 reward, Gregory had received a three-page letter, rife with backwoods grammar: “the tipoff boys were waiting between Meridian and Philadelphia Mississippi and surrounded by a sum of five men. . . . The burial took place shortly after the mob had taken over which is a field not too far from Philadelphia, Miss., between five to eight miles off the right coming south from Philadelphia between 200 and 400 yards off the road. . . .” When Gregory turned the letter over to the FBI, agents traced it to a Mississippi native in Washington, D.C., whom they dismissed as a mental patient, “a prolific letter writer . . . a nuisance.” Agents were no more impressed by Gregory’s tape of a man with a Mississippi drawl naming five slayers of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.
With Wilmer Jones’s help, the FBI finally stumbled on “the place.” Beyond the barbed-wire gate, a dozen deep wells might have hidden bodies, but they contained only water. Another dead end. Meanwhile, burly Joe Sullivan, directing the investigation, continued to meet his lone source—the Meridian highway patrolman. Though eager to talk about the Klan, the man still refused to discuss murder. As August approached, Sullivan was fed up with Mississippi and its “fair-minded, Christian people.” It was time for the payoff. Three weeks earlier, meeting J. Edgar Hoover in Jackson, Sullivan said his Meridian contact might talk—for $25,000. Hoover had told his assistant to “have the money ready at FBI headquarters.” By the last day of July, the money had been ready for more than a week.
All summer, the rotting shacks of Shaw, Mississippi, had seemed to drown in despair. Fred Winn had given up expecting any reaction from anyone. If paying a kid to plant a bomb did not awaken the black community, what would? Each afternoon was slower, more depressing, than the one before. Each evening the Delta sun set over burned-out ground. Shaw’s planters and their hired thugs remained in tight control over hordes of blacks worn down by work and hunger and humiliation. Then suddenly Shaw awoke. The catalyst was a single comment. “I realize it may sound foolish,” Sheriff Charlie Capps had told the New York Times, “but 95 percent of our blacks are happy.” An alert volunteer posted the Times article in the Freedom House and read it aloud during a mass meeting. Word soon spread, and furious letters were fired off to the newspaper:
Only a fool would be happy in Mississippi down here chopping cotton for 30 cents an hour.
If Capps thinks that we are happy why don’t he try living like the Negroes. After he has done that, ask him if he is happy.
I ain’t going to say that we’re happy because we ain’t. We don’t get justice anywhere. . . . Our boys don’t want no white girls. We just want our justice. Half of us done worked our lives away.
Shaw’s black high school was also awakening. When three volunteers were ejected from the cafeteria, students walked out of classes. The principal closed the school, parents joined the protest, and cops came to keep order. But Fred would not be there to see Shaw begin to stand up. Freedom Summer was finally coming to the Delta’s hub, and its project director needed a carpenter.
In late July, Fred packed his bag, his tools, and his father’s Bible that he now carried everywhere and moved a dozen miles across the cotton fields to the larger town of Indianola (pop. 6,714). He immediately sensed the town as edgier, more incendiary. The main road crossing town was a drag strip for the kind of people he wanted to avoid. Muscle cars roared down Highway 82 day and night. Unlike Sheriff Charlie Capps, Sunflower County’s sheriff was not trying to “keep a lid on things.” As in Greenwood, whites were the minority in Indianola but controlled everything and were determined to keep it that way. Blacks were quick to remind Fred that Indianola was the birthplace of the White Citizens’ Council. All summer, white Indianola had watched as the invaders had stirred up blacks in other Mississippi enclaves. They had thought their town would be spared. Now, with a project office opening and a Freedom School planned, they began marshaling a violent resistance that would strengthen throughout the coming year, culminating in fires blazing in the night.
For the first time all summer, Fred was living in a home. He was one of three volunteers hosted by sixty-eight-year-old Irene Magruder. Short, feisty, stout as a barrel, Mrs. Magruder dipped snuff, made beautiful quilts, and survived on what Delta blacks called “mother wit.” If Fred left lights on in her home, the silver-haired woman shouted, “Get the white man out of my pocket!” Along with hosting volunteers, Mrs. Magruder fed them at her White Rose Café, just down the street from a juke joint where Indianola’s own B. B. King had often played. White Rose specialties included spicy hamburgers, fried baloney sandwiches, and pig’s feet washed down with plenty of beer.
COFO’s late-starting project thrilled black Indianola. “Where have you people been?” one kid asked. “We’ve been waitin’ and waitin’!” The new project also gave Fred the chance to do more than handiwork. Shortly after settling in, he became the project’s communications director. Late at night in the Freedom House, he fiddled with a CB radio, pulling in scratchy voices from cars and offices across the Delta from Greenville to “Greenwood Sweets.” He was not on the CB long, however, before its code name—Item Base—was decoded. One afternoon, cops burst into the Freedom House, walked to the CB, wrote down its channel number, and walked out. A few late nights later, a chilling voice came on the line—“Hello, Item Base. Hello, Nigger lover!”
With his new home and new responsibilities, Fred was starting to consider staying on into fall. Though he frequently called it a “hell hole,” he was coming to like Mississippi—black Mississippi, at least. Five weeks in the Delta had finally doused his fear. “To be quite frank with you all I am quite calm and un-nervous,” he wrote home. “After a while you get used to the idea of being watched and hated. Also I just don’t have the goddamned time to be nervous or worried. . . . I am in the midst of a revolution. This is the greatest revolution since the American Revolution.” By the way, he asked his father, how was his half sister? Could a black kindergartner in San Francisco understand the movement? Had he told her how her half brother was spending the summer? Before Fred’s move to Indianola, his father had hoped he might come home early. “Be very careful these last few days,” he wrote to “Freddy.” “I remember in World War II we dropped thousands of pamphlets—‘Don’t be killed on the last day of the war.’ ” But now the elder Winn wondered whether his son would come home at all. Still hoping, he wrote that he was counting the days until Fred left Mississippi, “counting them like a jail sentence.”
Fifty miles to the north, Chris Williams was branching out from Batesville. Panola County had become Freedom Summer’s political success story. Hundreds of blacks had become registered voters. Even the high school principal had taken the leap. Names of registrants were still listed in the Panolian , but blacks had begun pointing to them with pride. There were simply too many new voters now for each one’s house to be targeted. Yet if SNCC was to take full advantage of the federal injunction, all of Panola County had to be canvassed. In mid-July, Chris hit the road he loved so much. Each morning, the wisecracking teenager rose, donned a T-shirt and jeans, had a quick breakfast, then piled into a car already crammed with volunteers. Dust clouds trailed them through the cotton fields, past blacks in overalls, bent double, chopping, hoeing. Penetrating deeper into “the rural,” Chris headed for towns as hostile as the snakes that slithered along the griddle roads. Sardis, Mississippi. Como. Crenshaw. Papers and pamphlets in hand, Chris spoke at juke joints and churches, talking up the Freedom Democrats and the upcoming convention in Atlantic City. Occasionally he ventured onto plantations but was usually run off, once by a planter who swore he “wasn’t going to turn the government over to a bunch of monkeys.”
In each town, Chris asked where a mass meeting might be held and if anyone wanted to host a volunteer. He managed to schedule a few meetings, but blacks anchored to plantations were terrified of offering their homes. Deacons feared their churches would be next on Mississippi’s incendiary list. And if word crossed town, Chris had to do some quick talking.
On the edge of the Delta, Chris found Crenshaw a “very violent town.” Its rickety storefronts and wooden sidewalks reminded him of an old Western; its stereotypical sheriff almost made him laugh. “I been deputy the past four years,” the sheriff told Chris, “and I ain’t never had to shoot a nigger.” One Saturday toward sunset, Chris was canvassing with Pam Jones, a black volunteer from Baltimore, when a dark Chevy cut them off. Several men with bulging T-shirts piled out. Chris tried to stay calm, but the usual taunt—“Communist!”—plus the one that triggered bad childhood memories—“Nigger lover!”—brought his feistiness to the surface. What did they mean, he had “no business here”? he shouted. Americans could go where they wanted, couldn’t they? Fingers were pointed, fists clenched. Faces were jaw to jaw. But after more shouting, the men sped off, leaving Chris feeling cockier than ever.
Back in Batesville, Stokely Carmichael told Chris to expect a spike in terror. The summer project had been more successful than whites expected, Carmichael said. And the Freedom Democrat challenge was a serious threat. The Klan and Citizens’ Council would surely rise to meet it. “The whole state is beginning to tighten up,” Chris wrote home. “In the last week people have been shot at in the daytime on the streets of Greenwood and a mob attacked two Civil Rights workers there.” August, he concluded, “will see more terrorism.” At Robert Miles’s home, the tear gas bomb was followed by a nearer miss. One midnight, volunteers were in the kitchen eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when a spark flashed outside. Bullets whizzed by the window. One volunteer crawled to the bedroom to drag the two boys to the floor. A few days later, coming to the courthouse, Chris found a dead rattlesnake nailed to the front door.
By then, Chris was living in Crenshaw, “operating a Freedom Outpost in the Delta.” Frequenting black cafés, gathering locals at the Masons’ hall, he was signing up Freedom Democrats “in droves.” Chris had learned not to challenge whites, not even when they called him a “trashy motherfucker” and threw another volunteer to the street. Never lonely, rarely discouraged, still amazed to be in Mississippi and making history, Chris lived for the friendship of blacks who soon knew him by name, greeted him everywhere, even laughed at his jokes. One evening he saw a local black girl slug three white men and run off. It made his day.
On the last afternoon in July, the streets of Philadelphia buzzed with rumors. The talk spread at gas station pumps, in the aisles of the A & P and Piggly-Wiggly, in the post office, where three faces stared beneath the word MISSING. The FBI had grilled Sheriff Rainey! Agents offered him $30,000 to talk! They offered Deputy Price a million bucks and the town constable “enough money to last him the rest of his life!” As rumors multiplied, the FBI again invaded downtown. Sunglasses glinting, agents stood outside the courthouse, returning each hate stare. Something was about to happen. Or something already had.
This much was true—FBI agents spoke to Price and Rainey that Friday. The stocky sheriff later boasted of how he’d handled the Federal Bureau of Integration. Yes, he had met agents, Rainey said, but if they wanted to see him again, they had better “come with subpoenas.” Behind his bluster, however, agents knew the sheriff was scared. Fearing that COFO’s suit against him might lead to a polygraph test, the sheriff had been inquiring about immunity from prosecution. On Friday, when agents came to his office, Rainey listened as they laid out evidence of his bootlegging. If convicted—when convicted—he faced fines, jail, and huge back taxes. But if he told what he knew about the disappearance, the FBI would “take care of him” to the tune of thirty grand. Rainey told the agents nothing. Down the hall, agents told Deputy Price they had spent $3 million looking for the three bodies and would “pay a million more just to know where they were.” With that kind of money, agents said, Price could “buy a cattle ranch in Wyoming.” The plump deputy, wearing his goofy smile, was as silent as the sheriff. But someone talked.
In the decades since Freedom Summer, many have speculated about who told the FBI where to find the bodies. Local suspicions ranged from a drunk who woke up in the woods to witness a triple burial to a Dutch “seer” telling agents the three were buried near a construction site. Many still believe the FBI hired a New York mobster, a member of the Colombo gang known as “The Grim Reaper.” And the hit man apparently flew to Mississippi, pummeled a suspect, stuck a gun in his mouth and screamed, “What happened to the three kids? ” The apocryphal story is mistakenly connected to another Mississippi murder; the truth is more traditional. The “someone” who talked was money, or perhaps just the hint of money.
Thirty grand. A million. Enough to last a lifetime. The actual payoff was said to be the lowest figure, but $30,000 in 1964 was equivalent to more than $200,000 in 2010. “We’d have paid a lot more if we’d had to,” one agent said. “We’d have paid anything.” The story of the payoff is legend in Neshoba County, but to this day, no one is sure whether anyone received any money. Inspector Sullivan always denied making any payoff. But he admitted that on Thursday, July 30, he took his contact—the highway patrolman from Meridian—out to a steak dinner at the Holiday Inn. And there the FBI finally learned where the bodies were buried. The next day, agents began floating rumors and grilling suspects, offering them big rewards, perhaps to stir suspicion among fellow Klansmen once the bodies were found. Someone may have received $30,000, but the highway patrolman, who died of a heart attack two years later, never displayed any sudden wealth. Nor could his role in solving the mystery be revealed. Recognizing he would be killed if identified, the FBI began calling the informant “Mr. X.” On August 1, guarding his secret with rumors, agents headed for the thick woods of Neshoba County.
As the sun rose that Saturday, agents skirted downtown Philadelphia, then headed south along Route 21 toward a farm known as “The Old Jolly Place.” They were looking for an enormous earthfill dam, but they found that Mississippi’s tangled landscape could hide objects far larger than a human body. After an hour hacking through brush, agents phoned headquarters and had a helicopter from the Meridian Naval Air Station fly over. “We’ve spotted the dam,” agents heard on their walkie-talkies. “It’s a big one.” Following directions from overhead, agents slashed through thickets, then topped a rise. Before them stood a crescent of ocher earth, twenty feet high at its midpoint and spanning a gap in the pine trees nearly twice the length of a football field. Mr. X had guaranteed the bodies were somewhere beneath it. “This is no pick and shovel job,” Inspector Sullivan said. He phoned the FBI in Washington, D.C., asking permission to rent heavy equipment. He also filed for a search warrant.
Finding three bodies beneath a dam—if they could be found—would surely quicken what President Johnson had recently called “the summer of our discontent.” But could anything break down the walls of white Mississippi? Persistent talk of a hoax, of media persecution, of “invaders” disrupting cordial race relations—all added up to an entire culture entrenched in denial. Even if the missing men were found, would anything change? “Maybe the best course for everybody is just to let the bodies lie and let the excitement gradually die down,” a Philadelphia man said. No local jury would convict anyone, “so why should we have all this hue and cry, and a big circus trial, with everybody goddamning Mississippi?” Yet because Freedom Summer thrived on hope, at some point hope had to cross the railroad tracks.
From its early planning stages, the summer project had focused a glimmer of its idealism on Mississippi’s impoverished whites. The “White Folks Project” targeted Biloxi, known for being nearly as tolerant as Greenville. In late June, eighteen volunteers had gone from Ohio to the Gulf Coast town to help poor whites “see that their enemy is not the Negro but poverty.” By early July, volunteers were speaking daily with carpenters, barbers, fishermen, even the high school principal. Occasionally they met someone who would listen, but more often “there was no dialogue, just antagonism.” “Why Mississippi?” white folks asked. Why not work in your own states? The White Folks Project soon floundered. Volunteers spent days arguing about whom they should contact, what they should say. Striking out on their own, two women took jobs at a diner to “get the feel of the community” but were discovered as “COFOs” and fired. By August, six volunteers had quit, and the rest were going door-to-door, trying to convince poor whites that the Freedom Democrats were not the “nigger party.” “It looks like the pilot phase of our White Community Project is pretty much over,” one wrote home.
The search for tolerance continued. Could there be a few whites who, while not supporting integration, would at least listen to reason? While the White Folks Project sputtered, lone volunteers took advantage of grudging hospitality. Once it became clear that volunteers were in town for the entire summer, a few were invited into white homes. There they met polite but firm dismissal.
“You Northerners all think that every Mississippian is a bare-footed redneck.”
“How can these kids presume to come into our state, not knowing our people or our customs, and tell us how to live our lives? ”
“What’s so hard to explain to you—to people like you—is how much we care for our niggers. You think we’re heartless because we segregate our society. I tell you that the nigger prefers it that way, same as we do.” Dismayed volunteers headed back to their side of town. Perhaps among the better educated . . .
On consecutive Tuesdays in late July, two volunteers visited the University of Mississippi. Nearly two years had passed since brick-throwing mobs had rioted all night to block James Meredith’s enrollment, but William Faulkner’s hometown had only hardened its Rebel resistance. Moderate professors continued to leave for other universities. Locals and students still blamed federal marshals for the riot that had claimed two lives and brought Oxford worldwide notoriety. And now, even if Meredith had quickly finished his degree and left the state, here were more “outsiders” coming to campus to preach integration, to stir up trouble. With city and campus police trailing them, the two volunteers met with Meredith’s former adviser and the campus newspaper editor, who complained of Mississippi’s tarring in the press. Invited back the next week, the two spoke to a sociology class, explaining their work, then fielding questions.
“Would you marry a Negro? ”
“Is your organization Communist? ”
“Why are Negroes so immoral? ”
No minds were changed, but students seemed to listen. Over lunch, volunteers sat in a dining hall echoing with catcalls—“Communist! . . . Queer!” On their way out of town, a pickup chased them until they ducked down back roads. A similar exchange in Vicksburg saw volunteers meet college students in a Catholic rectory. One volunteer found the students “guilty, agonized, and profoundly frightened.” A second meeting was scheduled, but no students showed up.
The summer’s only prolonged cross-cultural contact took place on a series of Wednesdays. Since July 7, a group of black and white women from the Northeast had been flying to Jackson each Tuesday evening. Calling themselves “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” the women were led by Dorothy Height, chair of the National Council of Negro Women, and Polly Cowan, former TV host and mother of two volunteers. Wednesday after Wednesday, the women visited Freedom Schools, talked with volunteers, and met socialites in Jackson and Meridian. As at Ole Miss, politeness and denial prevailed, this time over tea. “Wednesdays in Mississippi” women marveled at responses that seemed programmed into their hosts. No Negroes wanted to vote except for those who were Communists. Negro schools were not—ahem—a disgrace. Just look at their beautiful buildings. And Mississippi police did “a splendid job.” At one meeting, however, an elderly Mississippi woman broke in. “Girls,” she said, “I just have to tell you you are so wrong.” While serving on a federal civil rights commission, she had heard the abuses, “and there were lots of injustices, terrible ones.” Skirts were straightened, faces fell. The conversation resumed, with fewer platitudes. A few “Wednesdays in Mississippi” women, North and South, would keep in touch that fall.
Even when invited, moderation dared not speak its name in Mississippi. Visiting doctors and ministers were sometimes pulled aside by whites who, looking over their shoulders, confessed that they supported integration. Journalists met locals who admitted their state needed help, but refused to be quoted. “If you print my name next to what I’m going to tell you,” one told the Washington Post, “I’ll be ruined. I’ll lose my business, my friends, I’ll be run out of this state.” The fear seemed exaggerated, until one heard about the Heffners.
Mississippi had few more loyal sons than Albert Heffner. Raised on a Greenwood plantation, the big, jovial man everyone called “Red” had gone to Ole Miss, where he met his wife, Malva, another native. The couple had lived in McComb for ten years. Red’s downtown insurance office was always busy. He and Malva were deeply involved in church activities. Their daughter, Jan, had been Miss Mississippi, with her picture on the billboard outside McComb. When the bombings began in his town, Red had written to the Sovereignty Commission, suggesting that “responsible citizens” stand up to the Klan. “I am not an integrationist, segregationist, conservative, moderate, or liberal,” he noted. “I am just an insurance man in debt up to my ears.” But on July 17, Red Heffner committed what McComb’s mayor would later call “a breach of etiquette.” He invited two “mixers” to dinner.
He had only wanted “to let the Civil Rights workers hear the Mississippi point of view.” But with bombings in McComb on the increase, and sales of guns and dynamite soaring, the jovial insurance man quickly became the target of his town’s feverish fear. Just after dinner, Heffner’s phone rang. The caller asked to speak to volunteer Dennis Sweeney. The conversation was brief, confirming the rumor that was inflaming the neighborhood. Then another call came. “Whose car is that in front of your house? ” An hour later, when Red opened his front door, he was blinded by the headlights of ten cars parked in his yard. Volunteers slowly slipped past the blockade and made it back to the project office, but the Heffners’ ordeal had just begun. First came the phone threats—“If you want to live, get out of town.” “How does you wife like sleeping with niggers?” “You nigger-loving bastard. You’re gonna get your teeth kicked in.” Next, Red was evicted from his office. Rumors that their house would be bombed sent Malva and Jan to live at the Holiday Inn. The Heffners soon heard shocking slander—that Jan worked for the FBI, that their other daughter was in a Communist training school in New York, that Malva was a call girl. Old friends refused to speak to them. No one came to their defense. By early August, the Heffners were considering something they could not have imagined at the start of summer—leaving Mississippi. And by September, after more than three hundred phone threats, the air let out of their tires, their dog poisoned, dead on their doorstep, they were gone. They would never live in Mississippi again. Decades later, talking about their expulsion still brought them to tears.
Searching for tolerance, volunteers finally turned to the only people in Mississippi who had little to lose—alienated teenagers. On August 3, as the FBI was bringing heavy equipment to Neshoba County, Pete Seeger gave a concert in McComb. In his sweat-stained work shirt, his head thrown back, his banjo ringing, Seeger sang “Abiyoyo” and “What a Beautiful City.” The outdoor concert behind the Freedom House drew dozens of black kids, along with volunteers like Ira Landess. Toward the end of the evening, the Manhattan teacher noticed two white boys standing by themselves. They were not singing—at a Pete Seeger concert?—but they did not seem dangerous. Cautiously, Landess approached. The two teens—Gary and Jack—told him they just wanted to hear Seeger. But as they talked, Landess discovered that not every white youth in Mississippi was content to live in a closed society.
One of the teens, Gary Brooks, had recently acquired a dangerous habit—asking questions. After reading Black Like Me, the startling best seller by a white journalist who darkened his skin to roam the South, Brooks began daring himself to cross the tracks. He told no one about his walks through the black side of McComb. He merely wondered. Why were there so few businesses, so few decent homes, such poverty? Why had students at his high school cheered when the principal announced that President Kennedy had been killed? And who were these “invaders” coming to Mississippi? When summer began, Brooks watched McComb explode. Each bomb entrenched the town’s spreading siege mentality. Friends became strangers. Suspicion spread like afternoon heat. No one could be certain who might be in the Klan, what casual remark might be turned against him. Anyone who showed the slightest sympathy for “the COFOs” might be the next Red Heffner hounded out of town.
When Pete Seeger closed his concert, Gary and Jack agreed to continue their conversation with Ira Landess. Gary soon phoned the Freedom House, telling Landess he had several friends who wanted to meet him. They agreed to meet at the Holiday Inn. Some suspected a trap, but Landess trusted the teens. After reviewing security measures, he went alone to the Holiday Inn on the edge of town near Interstate 55. Taking a room, he waited. After an hour, just Gary and Jack showed up. Their friends had “chickened out.” The Manhattan teacher and the Mississippi teens talked for a few hours. Throughout August, Gary and Jack would continue to drop by the Freedom House. Ira Landess welcomed them as heralds of a new Mississippi. The rest of the state would still need shock treatment.
One hundred miles per hour was not an uncommon speed in Mississippi that summer. Battered sedans and pickups flew past fields and barns, chasing SNCC cars. The chases usually ended with the lead car dodging down a back road, or the pursuers, having had their fun, peeling off. The miracle was that no one had been hurt. But until the first day of August, no one had passed on a hill.
The cars collided at the top of the rise. Head on, they slammed into each other, lifting front ends, shattering glass, crumpling chrome and steel. One car was driven by a local man, the other by a Holly Springs SNCC worker driving with Wayne Yancey, a black volunteer from Chicago. Yancey was known for his jovial attitude, his ham-handed pickup lines, and his cowboy hat. At 3:30 p.m. on August 1, the call came to the Holly Springs project office. “You folks better get down to the hospital. Two of your boys had a head-on wreck out on the highway and one of ’em is dead!” Arriving at the hospital, the COFO contingent found a hearse with one dark foot sticking out the back. The ankle was broken, dangling, and through the rear window everyone could see the face. In a monstrous flashback, it reminded some of Emmett Till in his casket. “His head went through the windshield,” someone said.
High speeds were common in Mississippi that summer, but when the state wanted to slow down, nothing happened in a hurry. For the rest of the afternoon, volunteers and SNCCs argued with cops and pleaded with doctors. Hearing that the car’s driver was in the hospital, a volunteer who was also a nurse rushed inside. She saw the man on a gurney, his jaw broken, his face maroon and purple. Doctors had given him a shot and an X-ray, but when the nurse-volunteer insisted he be rushed to a Memphis hospital, she was dragged outside. Cops swarming around the hearse would not let anyone touch Wayne Yancey’s body. And the driver could not be taken to Memphis—he was under arrest. Hearing that the car was nearby, SNCC staffer Cleveland Sellers walked off to find it—totaled. The windshield was two spiderwebs of glass. The steering column lay in the front seat. Blood splattered the interior. When Sellers insisted on claiming the car, he was arrested. It took two more hours of arguing, but the driver was finally taken to Memphis, then flown to Chicago, where he recovered. Volunteers drove the body of Wayne Yancey to his family home in Tennessee. Back at the project office, they hung his cowboy hat on a wall. In the summer swamp of suspicion, some were certain Yancey had been murdered. Some still think so, although all evidence points to an accident. Two nights after Yancey’s death, a steam shovel and a bulldozer, trucked from Jackson, arrived at the dam site in Neshoba County. Mississippi’s hour of reckoning had come.
Dwarfed by the sprawling landfill, FBI agents showed up at 8:00 a.m. on August 4, armed with a search warrant valid for ten days. Agents also brought sleeping bags, tarps, and enough food to last as long as the search might take. By 8:15, they had sealed off the property, handed its owner the search warrant, and prepared the shovel that would dig to the bottom of the dam if necessary. But where along the vast landfill should they dig? Standing atop the dam, a heavy equipment operator shoved a stick in the ground fifty yards from the western end. “I’d say start digging here.” But having been told the bodies were beneath the middle of the dam, an agent yanked the stick and walked fifteen paces toward the center. “We’ll start here,” he said. The digging began at 9:00 a.m. The death scene was framed by skinny pine trees and a cloudless sky. The temperature already neared 90.
As the steam shovel bit into the dam, agents scurried like insects, scribbling notes, taking photos, gathering dirt samples. A stinging sun soon cleared the pines, sweat-soaking white shirts and blue collars. No one beyond the site, no one in America aside from the president and top FBI officials, knew of the digging. Back at the Delphia Courts Motel, Inspector Sullivan kept in touch by walkie-talkie. The digging continued, cutting a small U atop the dam.
At 11:00 a.m. agents noticed “the faint odor of decaying material.” Yet those who had fought in World War II knew that smell, and it was not faint for long. Agents halted the shovel and began digging with trowels. They found nothing, and by noon the machine was plunging deeper.
By 3:00 p.m., when the temperature topped 100, a V-shaped gash had been gouged nearly to ground level. Clouds of blue-green flies swarmed around the cut. The smell wafted to the sky, where vultures circled. One agent was writing in his logbook when another spotted the boot. A black Wellington boot sticking from the earth. Agents began digging with shovels and bare hands. In the reeking heat, one stumbled from the pit, vomiting. Others donned white masks or lit cigars, believing one stench would drown another. For the next two hours, they clawed at the Mississippi earth, uncovering legs clad in Wrangler jeans, a hand with a wedding ring, and finally a torso, shirtless, with a bullet hole under one armpit. Agents called Inspector Sullivan. “Reporting one WB. Repeat one WB.” One white body. Sullivan used a more arcane code to alert his headquarters. He radioed the FBI in Washington: “We’ve uncapped one oil well.”
At 5:07 p.m., agents unearthed Andrew Goodman. Facedown, arms outstretched, he lay under the body of Mickey Schwerner. In his left hand, Goodman held a piece of earth, gripped so tightly it could barely be pried from his fingers. Some would later wonder. Had the innocent young man believed he could fight off a lynch mob with a rock? Or, noting how the pressed clay matched the earth that covered him, some asked whether Andrew Goodman, though found with a bullet through his chest, had been buried alive. In Goodman’s back pocket, agents discovered a wallet with his draft card. Word went back to Washington. Something about a second oil well. Seven minutes later, the third well was uncapped. James Chaney lay on his back, barefoot, beside the other two. “Mickey could count on Jim to walk through hell with him,” the Freedom House worker had said. Now Mickey Schwerner, the man he called “Bear,” and the new friend they had brought from Ohio, had reached the far side. Someone phoned the county coroner as the news began rippling across Mississippi, across America.
Like the assassination the previous fall, volunteers would forever remember where they were when they heard. Several were in a Hattiesburg church basement listening to James Forman. He had just spoken about the disappearance, calling it “the first interracial lynching in the history of Mississippi,” when a man came downstairs and whispered in his ear. Forman’s face went blank. He hurried upstairs, leaving volunteers to wonder. When he returned, he shared the news, then walked off. Everyone drifted out of the room.
In Meridian, many were singing along with Pete Seeger. Someone came onstage and handed him a note. Seeger lowered his eyes, then stood to his full height and told the crowd. After gasps and tears, he led the audience in a slow and haunting song.
O healing river
Send down your water
Send down your water
Upon this land
O healing river
Send down your water
And wash the blood
From off our sand.
Lyndon Johnson got the news from J. Edgar Hoover’s assistant. The president’s day had been consumed by the attack on two American PT boats in North Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin. Following an earlier assault, he had promised swift retaliation, but from halfway around the world, reports of this latest attack were conflicting: “Many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonar men may have accounted for many reports.” But moments later, the same captain confirmed the reports as “bona-fide.” That afternoon, the president met with congressional leaders. By 7:00 p.m., he was with his cabinet, authorizing air strikes. At one minute past eight, the call came from Mississippi.
“Mr. Hoover wanted me to call you, sir, immediately, and tell you that the FBI has found three bodies six miles southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi—six miles west of where the civil rights workers were last seen on the night of June 21st. . . . We have not identified them as yet as the three missing men but we have every reason to believe they are.”
In a somber voice, the president asked, “When are you going to make the announcement? ”
“Within ten minutes sir, if that is all right with you.”
“Okay. If you can hold it about fifteen minutes, I think we ought to notify these families.”
“Mr. President, the only thing I’d suggest is to not . . . do that prior to the time that they’re identified.”
“I think we could tell them that we don’t know, but we found them and that kind of would ease it a little bit.”
Robert and Carolyn Goodman had not gone out much that summer. One evening, the cast of James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mr. Charlie had come to their apartment to offer sympathy. But August 4 was the night before Robert’s birthday. A Czech mime troupe was performing at Lincoln Center. The curtain had just gone up when a man came down the aisle and signaled the couple. Robert Goodman knew instantly. Nathan and Anne Schwerner were vacationing in Vermont when their lawyer called. Anne Schwerner asked whether anyone was there to comfort Mrs. Chaney. Fannie Lee Chaney was home in Meridian. The parents would all be together soon.
By the time darkness fell across the dam site, three faces again stared at America. ABC interrupted the sitcom McHale’s Navy. The NBC bulletin came during the high school drama Mr. Novak. CBS broke into a travelogue. Shortly after 8:00 p.m. Mississippi time, as floodlights lit the dam site, the county coroner arrived with Deputy Price. FBI agents watched Price for any hint of guilt. Stone-faced beneath his cowboy hat, Price helped load three black body bags into a hearse. With Sheriff Rainey vacationing in Biloxi, Price then accompanied the bodies to a medical center in Jackson, where Goodman and Schwerner, their faces worn away by time and earth, were identified by dental records. James Chaney had no such records, but being a black man buried with whites in Mississippi was enough to remove all doubt.
In the coming days, summer’s discontent deepened. War now seemed certain in Vietnam, sparking a protest in Manhattan. Picketers marched outside federal buildings in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., demanding that marshals be sent to Mississippi. After forty-four days of fearing the worst, the worst had been dug out of Mississippi clay. In their Manhattan apartment, the Goodmans spoke to the press. Surrounded by microphones, Robert Goodman droned through a prepared statement while his wife sat by his side, her face as blank as her hopes. Having recently visited the Lincoln Memorial to renew their faith in America, the Goodmans now paraphrased Lincoln—“It is for us the living to dedicate ourselves that these three shall not have died in vain.” The tragedy, Robert Goodman softly said, “is not private, it is part of the public conscience of our country.” In Washington, D.C., a quiet and reflective Rita Schwerner told reporters her husband was “a very gentle man . . . totally committed to the goodness in human beings.” Reporters’ questions were probing and personal.
“Did you love your husband? ”
“Why are you so calm? ”
“What did your husband die for? ”
“That, I would imagine, is up to the people of the United States,” Rita answered. “For me, I think three very good men were killed, men who could have made unbelievable contributions to American life.” Nathan and Anne Schwerner made no public statement. James Chaney’s mother said only, “My boy died a martyr for something he believed in—I believe in—and as soon as his little brother Ben gets old enough he’ll take James’ place as a civil rights worker.”
The national press was not so restrained.
The closed society that is Mississippi is a blot on the country.
The murders of Michael Henry Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Earl Chaney are a horrendous example of an unthinking and inhuman reaction that might happen wherever mobs make themselves custodians or nullifiers of the law.
—New York Times
None of those who have died in Mississippi have died in vain. The corpses in the river, the three bodies in the levee are all damning witnesses to a way of life that is indifferent to life. . . . The discovery of the three bodies ends a long ordeal for the boys’ parents. The ordeal for Mississippi has just begun.
Back in Mississippi, those still steeped in denial anticipated a different ordeal. A few seemed repentant. “We must track down the murderers of these men and we must bring them to justice,” wrote the Vicksburg Post. “The honor of our state is at stake.” Hodding Carter’s Delta Democrat-Timesnoted, “Many of us in Mississippi need to take a long hard look at ourselves. We could begin by altering the sorry record of interracial justice which we have made over the past decade.” But others circled the wagons, predicting “a new hate campaign against Mississippi.” A farmer in Meridian clung to the past. “It was those integration groups that got rid of them,” he said. “They couldn’t let them live after they disappeared for fear everyone would find out it was a hoax.” Another voiced the ill many were too polite to speak of the dead: “If they had stayed home where they belonged nothing would have happened to them.”
On the day the bodies were found, dozens of volunteers were arrested for passing out Freedom Democrat leaflets. That night two more churches went up in flames. But once the news spread from Neshoba County, the violence ceased. For the next four days, with Mississippi again spotlighted in shame, a tense calm prevailed. As details of the murders emerged—they had been quick, there was no evidence the men had been beaten—arguments erupted over the bodies. Distrusting Mississippi doctors, the Schwerners sent their own physician to perform autopsies. Dr. David Spain found single bullets lodged in Goodman’s spine and Schwerner’s left lung. Powder burns proved both had been shot point-blank. Then, examining Chaney’s body, the doctor stirred a controversy that has yet to settle. Contrary to initial reports, he announced, Chaney had been horribly beaten. Shot three times, he had several broken bones, one shoulder “reduced to a pulp,” his skull caved in. “In my extensive experience of twenty-five years as a pathologist and as a medical examiner,” the doctor announced, “I have never witnessed bones so severely shattered, except in tremendously high speed accidents such as airplane crashes.” (Chaney’s beating was frequently cited as further proof of savagery. Later evidence suggested he had been run over by the bulldozer burying him, but autopsy photos revealed in 2000 showed that Chaney was severely beaten before being shot.)
When LBJ spoke at his Texas ranch, predicting “substantive results” in the Neshoba murder case, reporters flocked to Philadelphia, expecting arrests. They found the town swarming with activity. The Neshoba County Fair was just days away, and the fairgrounds, two miles south of where the bodies were found, were humming. The fair was “Mississippi’s Giant House Party,” drawing thousands eager to while away long, story-filled nights in wooden cabins of picture-perfect nostalgia, with creaking porches and rocking chairs. Philadelphia lived for its famous fair, and nothing, not even the stench of death, would dampen it. Reporters asking questions about bodies and burials had to settle for answers about the “giant house party.” But behind closed doors, many in Philadelphia were asking the same question. After a six-week intensive search, how had the bodies suddenly turned up? Some said the dam, built in May but still holding no water, attracted suspicion. Others noted Dick Gregory’s informant letter, which the FBI publicly discounted. Those still enraged by the bureau’s invasion insisted agents had planted bodies beneath the dam. As talk of a payoff spread, suspicion focused on anyone displaying sudden status—a new car, a barbecue, a hunting rifle. Whoever the informant was, many said, they would “hate to be in his shoes” if his name was discovered. (The name of the informant Mr. X—agent Joseph Sullivan’s chummy highway patrolman from Meridian—would not be revealed until 2005. Speculation on which Klansman revealed the burial site to Mr. X remains rampant.)
At the dam site, state troopers kept sightseers away while FBI agents sifted dirt and scoured approach roads for clues. They found none. Olen Burrage, owner of the site, denied suspicions. “I want people to know I’m sorry it happened,” the burly businessman said. “I just don’t know why anybody would kill them, and I don’t believe in anything like that.” The bodies that had lain together throughout Freedom Summer were soon separated. Rita Schwerner hoped her husband could rest in the earth with his friend, but no mortician in Mississippi would touch an integrated burial. James Chaney was to be buried on a hilltop outside Meridian. The bodies of Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were flown to New York.
The movement in Mississippi changed that weekend. SNCC’s faith that “courage displaces fear [and] love transforms hate” suddenly seemed insulting. Many would continue to march, unarmed and singing, into the billy clubs, into the black buses taking them to jail. But countless members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would no longer speak of nonviolence. Those who did would encounter disdain. “Y’all can be non-violent,” one Delta man said, “but I ain’t going to let them folks come up here and shoot and not have nothing to shoot back with.” Black Greenwood, on edge all summer, was boiling over. Blacks were boycotting a store owned by the cop who dragged the pregnant woman on Freedom Day. Outside the store, police patrolled in full riot gear. Silas McGhee continued his campaign to integrate the Leflore Theater. Emerging into melees, pelted with bottles, Silas returned to the theater night after night. And now three bodies . . .
On the night of August 4, blacks at a Greenwood rally raged against neighbors who still refused to join the movement, to “have some race pride!” Stokely Carmichael promised to “loudmouth everyone in this town ain’t doin’ right!” Then he added, “Another thing. We’re not goin’ to stick with this non-violence forever. We don’t go shooting up their houses. It’s not us who does that.” Later that night at SNCC headquarters, Carmichael and others debated bringing guns back into the office. After agreeing it was about time, Carmichael left the room to call COFO headquarters “to get the mandate from Bob.” No one knows what Moses said, but Carmichael returned chastened. “What I think we ought to do is work harder on freedom registration forms,” he said. All that week, SNCC veteran Bob Zellner asked others, in private, if they were interested in his plan to kill Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Price. None were. Yet not even Bob Moses could keep the “nonviolent” in SNCC’s name much longer.
On Friday, August 7, both James Chaney and nonviolence were laid to rest in Mississippi. Following Chaney’s private burial, a memorial march through Meridian drew streams of silent mourners. At dusk, hundreds gathered inside a church lit by TV lights and filled with shouts and sobs. As a swelling chorus sang “We Shall Overcome,” Fannie Lee Chaney stood in a black veil, hugging her twelve-year-old son, dressed in his Sunday suit. Deprived of his brother, his best friend, Ben Chaney wavered between sorrow and rage. On the way to the funeral, Ben had stared down a photographer, then muttered, “I’m gonna kill ’em! I’m gonna kill ’em!” Watching the casket lowered into the grave, he shouted, “I want my brother!” But now, as mournful voices filled the church, he leaned against his mother, wiped his glistening face, and sang. “We Shalllll . . .” Then realizing the finality of a funeral, that he would never see his big brother again, Ben dissolved in tears. Watching him weep, COFO chairman Dave Dennis decided to scrap the speech he had planned.
Since entering Mississippi as a Freedom Rider, Dennis had taught classes in nonviolence and helped quell the pending riot at Medgar Evers’s wake. Early in 1964, Dennis had met Mickey and Rita Schwerner and suggested they work in Meridian. On June 21, he had planned to accompany Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney into Neshoba County, but a case of bronchitis kept him home. Now he stood before mourners, overwhelmed by grief and guilt. Fannie Lee Chaney had asked him to give the eulogy—something calm, something inspiring—but Dennis suddenly saw nonviolence as “a mistake.” In his high-pitched voice, he began speaking not from notes, nor from the heart, but from an entire race’s resentment and wrath.
“Sorry, but I’m not here to do the traditional thing most of us do at such a gathering,” the skinny, sad-eyed Dennis began. “What I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care. . . .” As Dennis spoke, one hand trembling, the other gripping the podium, mourners rose to meet his words, calling out “Amen” and “All right!” Dennis enshrined James Chaney in the lengthening list of martyrs—Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and Herbert Lee and the countless other blacks in Mississippi whose murders had gone unpunished. Enough, his every word said. His body began to shake. His pitch rose to a fever. Enough.
“I’m sick and tired of going to memorials. I’m sick and tired of going to funerals!”
“I’ve got a bitter vengeance in my heart tonight.”
“So have I! ”
“And I’m not going to stand here and ask anybody here not to be angry tonight!”
Dennis spoke of blacks fighting in World War II and coming home to Mississippi “to live as slaves.” He knew that “when they find the people who killed these guys in Neshoba County” there would be a trial. Yes, and “a jury of their cousins, their aunts, and their uncles.” And he knew what the verdict would be—“not guilty. Because no one saw them pull the trigger. I’m tired of that!”
“Yes, God help us! ”
“I am, too! I’m sick of it! ”
Dennis spoke for “the young kids . . . for little Ben Chaney here and the other ones like him.” When some applauded, Dennis lashed out. “Don’t get your frustration out by clapping your hands!” Tilting his head, biting one lip, he fought back tears, fought for words.
“This is our country, too!” he shouted. “We didn’t ask to come here when they brought us over here. . . .”
“AMEN, RIGHT! ”
“The best thing that we can do for Mr. Chaney, for Mickey Schwerner, for Andrew Goodman is stand up and DEMAND our rights!”
“All right! ”
“Don’t just look at me and the people here and go back and say that you’ve been to a nice service . . .”
“If you do go back home and sit down and take it, God damn your souls!”
“That’s the truth! ”
“Stand up!” Dennis shouted. Then, his voice falling to a desperate whisper, he pleaded—“Don’t bow down anymore. Hold your heads up.” His eyes watering, Dennis concluded. “We want our freedom now, (now!) I don’t want to go to another memorial. I’m tired of funerals.” He banged his fist on the podium, then pointed to the sky. “Tired of it! We’ve got to stand up.” His voice shattering, he walked off the stage.
Two days later, separate memorials were held for Goodman and Schwerner in Manhattan. Crowds of nearly two thousand attended each. Goodman’s service, at the Ethical Culture Institute on the Upper West Side, was interrupted by a bomb threat, but police removed two large flowerpots and the ceremony continued. Rabbi Joseph Lelyveld, still scarred from his severe beating in Hattiesburg a month earlier, gave one of many eulogies: “The tragedy of Andy Goodman cannot be separated from the tragedy of mankind. Along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, he has become the eternal evocation of all the host of beautiful young men and women who are carrying forward the struggle for which they gave their lives.” When the service ended, someone took the yellow rose atop the coffin and handed it to Carolyn Goodman. She came to the center aisle, turned back, and took first the arm of Fannie Lee Chaney, just flown in from Mississippi, then the arm of Anne Schwerner. Three mothers, heads bowed, dressed in black, weeping as one, walked slowly from the chapel.
So you see, fighting is an everyday thing—don’t never rest.
—Winson Hudson, Mississippi Harmony