A lone car trailing dust down a back road in Neshoba County could be seen for miles. Cars were common enough along the sunburned fields fifty miles inside the Alabama line, but not so common that a stranger’s car would not be suspected. When a black man was driving, the suspicion doubled. And if he was a known civil rights worker, perhaps even driving with a white man, there was no way to measure the trouble ahead. So in the final weeks before he disappeared into the darkness of Neshoba County, James Chaney made his visits at night. Crossing the county line, he killed his headlights and punched the accelerator.
Neshoba County, its farmland framed by thickets, its gentle hills bottoming into bogs, had just 20,000 people spread over 570 square miles. Three-quarters were white, with less to fear from Negro voting than in the “black belt” of the Delta. Yet no Negro had registered in Neshoba County since 1955, and anyone who suggested it was time had several forces to reckon with. There was a big, beefy cowboy of a sheriff, elected on a campaign promise to “handle the niggers and the outsiders.” There was the White Citizens’ Council. There was the Klan, posting recruitment flyers and burning crosses that spring. And there were the good people of Neshoba County—merchants, laborers, teachers—all rather partial to the way things had been since their granddaddy’s day.
Neshoba County’s reputation reached far beyond its borders. Steeped in bootleg whiskey and the corruption it brought, Neshoba was known as “one of the wettest dry counties in the dry state of Mississippi.” The county was also notorious as a backwater—provincial, hidebound, friendly to its own but just plain mean to strangers. Not many strangers came to “these parts,” however. Growing up in Neshoba County, a native might pass a lifetime without meeting more than a few people from outside Mississippi. Whites who ventured north returned with stories of cold, crime-ridden cities where blacks were caged in ghettos, where “folks yah met on the street just didn’t care whether yah lived or died.” But blacks who fled north never came back, and those who stayed in Neshoba County learned to be invisible. “We don’t bother no white folks and usually they don’t pay no attention to us,” one said. “We just live here and scratches it out.” Blacks who thought differently had to keep quiet or keep moving.
Racing down dirt paths lit only by his parking lights and the moon, James Chaney often hit speeds of seventy-five or eighty. Though raised in adjacent Lauderdale County, Chaney knew Neshoba, knew every gully, every ditch, every shack where a black family was brave enough to “reddish to vote.” Flying past swamps, skittering over rutted roads, Chaney’s blue Ford wagon was a shadowy streak by moonlight. When he arrived at a dark cabin, Chaney cautiously stepped out and whistled. His white companion waited. A candle or kerosene lamp signaled that they had the right place. They entered and in the gloaming, talked about family, farming, and finally, voting. Leaving leaflets about registration classes in Meridian, they hopped in the station wagon and sped on. Throughout the spring of 1964, each night run continued for as long as Chaney could stand the tension. Then he would drive toward the county line as fast as fear could take him. Crossing into Lauderdale County, Chaney flipped on his headlights, slowed to a safe speed, and headed home.
In the nightmare hours of June 22, phone calls startled sleepers from Mississippi to Moscow. Three men were missing, vanished, gone. SNCC in Atlanta called the Justice Department three times. Each call deepened concern, until by morning John Doar gave the FBI power to investigate. But the FBI agent in Jackson still refused to act. On the Ohio campus, a stunned Rita Schwerner lay curled on a cot, making her own calls. In New York, CORE director James Farmer was awakened at 2:30 a.m. A few hours later, a call alerted attorney William Kunstler. “You don’t know me,” the caller said, “but my son, Mickey, told me to call you if he ever needed a lawyer.” In Moscow, a UPI reporter phoned Dick Gregory. The comedian canceled his goodwill tour and headed for Mississippi, where phones were ringing all over the state. Another call to Meridian: no word of the three. A call to the Mississippi Highway Patrol—without a sheriff’s order, no missing persons bulletin could be issued for seventy-two hours. More calls. To sheriffs. To Washington, D.C. To the FBI in Jackson . . .
At 6:55 a.m., the first breakthrough came with a follow-up call to the Neshoba County jail. The jailer’s wife, having earlier denied seeing the three, now admitted they had been in custody. Brought in about 4:00 p.m. Sunday, James Chaney had been booked for speeding, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman held “for investigation.” But all three had been released at 6:00 p.m. The news sent shudders through COFO’s phone network. Freedom Summer planners had expected something like this, but on the first day of the project?
Volunteers still did not know. In Greenville, Muriel Tillinghast, hollow-eyed from sleeping on the floor, welcomed others to the office she would refuse to leave all that week. In Batesville, Chris Williams had another down-home breakfast and, with orders come from COFO to “lay low,” wondered when the work would begin. Meanwhile in Ohio, a second group of trainees was about to hear the most chilling of all SNCC stories from Mississippi. At 9:30 a.m. Bob Moses stood before an auditorium of fresh faces—Freedom School teachers—explaining Mississippi from a blackboard map. Calling the state “The Closed Society,” he added, “Mississippi is closed, locked. We think the key is the vote.” He paused, looked at his feet, then resumed. “There is an analogy to The Plague, by Camus. The country isn’t willing yet to admit it has the plague, but it pervades the whole society.” Just then, three SNCCs entered and called Moses over. When he returned to the stage, his voice was even softer, his manner still more grave.
“Yesterday morning, three of our people left Meridian, Mississippi, to investigate a church burning in Neshoba County. They haven’t come back and we haven’t had any word from them.” The auditorium rippled with alarm. In the confusion, a waiflike woman with dark, closely cropped hair and black-rimmed glasses strode to the stage. Rita Schwerner asked volunteers to group by home states and send telegrams to their congressmen, demanding an FBI investigation. When someone asked how to spell the names of the missing, she strode to the blackboard and erased half of Mississippi. Then, as if it were not her husband but some stranger who had vanished, she calmly wrote the names in block letters. The clicking of the chalk could be heard to the back of the auditorium. Suddenly there was no need to “scare the crap” out of anyone. Each face bore a primal fear—this could happen to me. While volunteers grouped, Moses slipped outside and slumped down on a step overlooking a spreading lawn. Occasionally a friend approached to give him a hug. One whispered, “You are not responsible for this,” but Moses sat there for hours.
Within a few days, three photos would be seen around the nation—Goodman posed with a choirboy innocence; Chaney, his kindly face tilted; Schwerner, goateed, with a wry smile. Seen over and over, the trio would soon seem familiar to volunteers, as if they knew these three well. Some would talk of meeting “Andy” in Ohio, having had dinner with Mickey, or hearing Chaney talk to their group. Yet this morning, there were no faces, no trace of the men—just names on a blackboard.
JAMES CHANEY—CORE STAFF
MICHAEL SCHWERNER—CORE STAFF
ANDREW GOODMAN—SUMMER PROJECT VOLUNTEER
In his five months in Mississippi, some had come to revile Mickey Schwerner as “that Communist Jew Nigger lover.” Yet those who knew him were struck by his kindness, his easygoing manner, his lack of hatred for anyone, black or white. He was “full of life and ideas,” “the gentlest man I have ever known.” A coworker in Meridian paid him the compliment he would have cherished most: “More than any white person I have ever known he could put a colored person at ease.” Of average size and height, usually dressed in a gray sweatshirt, jeans, and black sneakers, Mickey Schwerner loved W. C. Fields, a good game of poker, and the hapless New York Mets. Raised by liberal parents—his father, a wig manufacturer, was a member of the War Resisters League—Mickey grew from a high school beatnik into a veterinary student before becoming a dedicated social worker with a degree from Cornell. By the summer of 1963, he was deeply involved in the social services of lower Manhattan. Each day he rose at 6:00 a.m. to work on civil rights with CORE. He spent afternoons helping teens in a social settlement on the Lower East Side. After dinner, he made home visits or attended meetings, often till midnight. His new wife, Rita, shared his dedication. While still a student at Queens College, she tutored middle school students, did her own work for CORE, and joined her husband on picket lines, where both were arrested for protesting segregated unions.
During the summer of 1963, as racial violence seared America, the civil rights movement captivated the Schwerners. That August, Mickey took teens to the March on Washington, yet it was not Martin Luther King but the Birmingham church bombing a few weeks later that drew him south. “I am now so thoroughly identified with the civil rights struggle that I have an emotional need to offer my services in the South,” the twenty-four-year-old Schwerner wrote on his application for CORE in Mississippi. “I would feel guilty and almost hypocritical if I did not give full time.”
In January 1964, Mickey and Rita Schwerner sublet their Brooklyn Heights apartment, left their cocker spaniel, Gandhi, with friends, and drove their ’59 VW to Jackson. Within days, they were in Meridian, the first white civil rights workers to penetrate Mississippi’s second largest city. Sleeping on cots, showering at a local black hotel, they lived less on their meager salaries than off the infinite energy of their ideals. Each day they tackled the job of turning a filthy old office into a Freedom House. Rita swept, cleaned, and sewed long, blue curtains while Mickey and an eager volunteer named James Chaney did repairs and built bookcases. By late February the house was bustling. A dozen or more kids showed up for Saturday story hours. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, adults came to voter registration classes. Most afternoons, teenagers dropped by just to be with the Schwerners.
Mickey loved to joke and jive with the kids he called “Mississippi’s best hope,” taking them on drives in his VW and talking about freedom. Yet some blacks in Meridian were not ready for this northern couple’s push on civil rights. A high school principal threw Mickey off campus, but he and Rita went back and leafleted a basketball game, drawing more teens to their Freedom House. When the Schwerners talked about removing “Colored Only” signs, CORE thought they were moving too fast, but they were allowed to organize boycotts of downtown stores that refused to hire black clerks. By April, they were fixtures on Meridian’s black side of town. “We’re actually pretty lucky here,” Mickey told a reporter. “I think they’re going to leave us alone.”
But in “Whites Only” Mississippi, the Schwerners could not have aroused more outrage. They had only been in the state a few days when a cop told them, “I just want you to know you’re about as welcome here as hair on a biscuit.” Soon they were spotted as not just outsiders, not just Jews, but “mixers.” Rita was even seen talking with black men. And although it would have fit well in Greenwich Village, Mickey’s goatee was a red flag in the clean-cut South. He had shaved it before leaving Brooklyn, but grew it back in March, saying anyone who hated him would need no excuse. Black kids loved Mickey’s goatee and called him “Mitch” after TV’s bearded choral leader Mitch Miller, but the beard enraged some whites, providing the nickname Mickey first heard when arrested for picketing that May—“You must be that Communist-Jew nigger lover they call ‘Goatee.’ ” By then, threats had become part of daily life. Callers to the Freedom House accused Rita of sleeping with Negroes. Others chanted, “That Jewboy is dead! That Jewboy is dead!” Electricity was cut off several times, water occasionally, and the Schwerners moved again and again when host families sensed their homes targeted. Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission had already given their license plate number to police departments throughout the state.
In late May, Mickey told his father he was “a marked man.” A few days later, the Schwerners took their phone off the hook. Rita was sometimes homesick and convinced that if she got pregnant, they would leave, but Mickey was rooted. “I belong right here in Mississippi,” he told a friend. “Nothing threatens peace among men like the idea of white supremacy. Nowhere in the world is the idea of white supremacy more firmly entrenched, or more cancerous, than in Mississippi. . . . So this is the decisive battleground for America, and every young American who wants to have a part in the decision should be here.”
Anchoring the Schwerners’ commitment was the commitment they inspired in others. James Chaney, shy and self-effacing, was as opposite the gregarious Mickey Schwerner as their skin color. Because James’s middle name was Earl, his family called him J. E., but Schwerner always called him “Bear,” and the two were inseparable. “Mickey could count on Jim to walk through hell with him,” a Freedom House regular said. After the army rejected him for having asthma, Chaney had drifted, working odd jobs, spending months unemployed, then helping his father plaster houses. But when his father left home, the two fought, and Chaney stormed off the job. Committed to civil rights since high school, he found his way into the Schwerners’ circle. It felt like coming home.
“Mama,” he said, “I believe I done found an organization that I can be in and do something for myself and somebody else, too.”
But Fannie Lee Chaney, raising five children on $28 a week, knew Mississippi better. “Ain’t you afraid of this? ” she asked.
“Naw, Mama, that’s what’s the matter now,” Chaney said. “Everybody’s scared.”
By the time he started his night runs into Neshoba County, Chaney was a CORE staffer. At twenty-one, he was also on the verge of being a father, but he would not be around for the birth. The day his daughter was born, he was driving with Mickey and Rita to the Ohio training. There the three agreed that volunteer Andrew Goodman was the man they wanted to start a Freedom School in Neshoba County. And when they heard that the church set to host the school had burned to the ground, Schwerner and Chaney returned to Mississippi with their new recruit.
Before his face appeared on an FBI poster, twenty-year-old Andrew Goodman might have been a poster boy for youthful altruism. With passions ranging from drama to poetry to the Holocaust, Goodman was, his mother recalled, “a born activist.” Like Mickey Schwerner, he had attended the progressive Walden School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Like the Schwerners, the Goodmans were a liberal family. Their dinner guests included such McCarthy-era pariahs as Alger Hiss, Zero Mostel, and their own attorney, who had defended the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. While in high school, Andrew Goodman had taken a bus to Appalachia to report on impoverished coal miners. In college, he shifted majors and campuses until settling at Queens College to study drama. He was planning to spend the summer of 1964 building a school in Mexico, but when he heard Fannie Lou Hamer speak at his college, he came home and told his parents he just had to go to Mississippi.
When his father asked why, Goodman’s idealism poured out: “Because this is the most important thing going on in the country! If someone says he cares about people, how can he not be concerned about this?” Carolyn Goodman, a psychologist, felt her son might as well have said, “I want to go off to war,” but she managed to respond that Mississippi seemed like “a great idea.” His father realized, “We couldn’t turn our backs on the values we had instilled in him at home.” Robert Goodman, a civil engineer, offered to provide the $150 in expenses, but Andy took a job loading trucks. Two months later, he was packing his duffel bag. As hopeful as his photo suggested, Goodman packed a sweater for a summer in Mississippi. “I’m scared,” he told a friend. “I’m scared but I’m going.” When he left for Ohio, Carolyn Goodman slipped iodine and bandages in her son’s bag. In Ohio, Goodman was originally slated to work in Vicksburg but was recruited by the Schwerners. Once reassigned, he called his parents. “Don’t worry,” he told them, “I’m going to a CORE area. It’s safer.” And on June 21, when he awoke in Mississippi, he wrote home:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I have arrived safely in Meridian, Miss. This is a wonderful town, and the weather is fine. I wish you were here. The people in this city are wonderful, and our reception was very good.
All my love,
At noon that Sunday, the three men set out for Neshoba County in the same blue Ford wagon Chaney drove on his night runs. Before they left, twelve-year-old Ben Chaney, whom Schwerner called “Cub,” was crying and asking to go with his big brother. Chaney told Ben to be patient. When he came back that afternoon, they’d go driving. Ben began waiting.
By late Monday morning, the men had been missing for eighteen hours. In Jackson, word had just come from Philadelphia. Spotted in jail at 9:00 p.m. Sunday, the three men appeared bruised and battered. COFO again called the FBI. Hearing of the alleged brutality, the agent in Jackson finally acted—he called his New Orleans office. SNCC was growing desperate. What about an air search? Roadblocks? An all-points bulletin? Mississippi was heating up in ways that had little to do with the humidity. All that morning, project offices were besieged with angry calls—“Nigger Lover!”; “Communist!”; “Go to hell!” After their warm welcomes in black communities, volunteers were finding first encounters with whites strange and sinister. Several were approached by nattily dressed college students. Calling themselves the Association of Tenth Amendment Conservatives (ATAC), the students talked on and on about states’ rights and the danger of minorities “issuing dictatorial orders.” But other whites did more than talk. Volunteers crossing the tracks to the white side of town were drilled by hate stares and startled by the loathing they would endure all summer.
In Clarksdale, at the north end of the Delta, a volunteer from Los Angeles was talking to blacks when a cop pulled up.
“What’re you doing here? ”
“I’m helping to register voters.”
“Don’t you know that the niggers don’t want any help? Don’t you know you’re not wanted here? What are you son-of-a-bitch bastards doing here anyway? ” When the volunteer tried to answer, he was ordered into the police car, where two snarling men cursed him: “Your mother’s not fit to work in a nigger whorehouse.” Jailed, denied phone calls, the man was finally released and told to get the hell out of Mississippi. Clarksdale, the sheriff said, had a hundred deputized citizens armed with billy clubs, “just waiting for the signal to split some head open. . . . Some folks are going to get hurt, maybe some killed, but then things will settle down.”
All that frantic Monday, despite mounting fear, the FBI in Jackson refused to investigate. SNCC was outraged but not surprised. Since Bob Moses had first come to Mississippi, SNCCs had knocked on federal doors, asking simply that the law be enforced. They were met with a palpable indifference. John F. Kennedy had no use for SNCC, considering its members “sons of bitches” who “had an investment in violence.” Robert Kennedy, hoping to steer civil rights from the streets to the courts, had his Justice Department file some two dozen voter discrimination lawsuits in Mississippi, but all were tangled in appeals or overturned by Mississippi judges, one of whom ranted against “niggers on a voter drive.” Frustrated at every turn, Moses had filed his own suit. Moses v. Kennedy and Hoover listed the long litany of brutality, demanding that the attorney general and FBI director “arrest any Mississippi law enforcement officer interfering with Negro voting.” Moses lost the case and appealed.
The federal record on protecting civil rights workers was even worse. John Doar had investigated threats against Herbert Lee and Louis Allen but refused protection. And both had been gunned down. Robert Kennedy delayed protection for the Freedom Riders, even after their bus was firebombed. His request for a “cooling off period” became a SNCC joke. But SNCC reserved its deepest cynicism for the FBI. SNCCs often saw FBI agents on the fringes of some violent mob—taking notes. Taking notes while Bob Zellner was nearly killed by a mob in McComb, taking notes while a police dog tore at Bob Moses in Greenwood, taking notes while cops lashed out in Canton or Jackson. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did not apologize. Convinced the civil rights movement was infused with Communists, Hoover was already eavesdropping on Martin Luther King, whom he considered “a true Marxist-Leninist from the top of his head to the tips of his toes.” When pressed about the FBI’s hands-off approach, Hoover declared, “We do not wet nurse those who go down to reform the South.”
A year before Freedom Summer, SNCC’s frustration had threatened to mar the elegiac mood of the March on Washington. Speaking before Martin Luther King, SNCC chairman John Lewis had planned to ask, “Which side is the federal government on?” Lewis was talked out of making the charge. By the time Freedom Summer began, a sign in SNCC offices throughout Mississippi summed up the cynicism.
There is a street in Itta Bena called Freedom
There is a town in Mississippi called Liberty
There is a department in Washington called Justice.
SNCC and COFO had asked—pleaded—that summer volunteers receive federal protection. There had been no answer. And three men had vanished the first night. With hundreds of potential targets now in the state, who knew how many more would soon set out down some Mississippi back road and not come back?
Not until a full day after Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were due back in Meridian did federal inertia finally end. Toward 6:00 p.m. Monday, Robert Kennedy ordered a full FBI investigation under the provisions of the Lindbergh kidnapping act. President Johnson was alerted. The Mississippi Highway Patrol issued a missing persons bulletin, and journalists across America and Europe began checking maps, locating Neshoba County, and booking flights. At 6:30 p.m., Walter Cronkite broke the news to the nation: “Good evening. Three young civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi on Sunday night near the central Mississippi town of Philadelphia, about fifty miles northeast of Jackson.” While Cronkite spoke, FBI agents drove north from New Orleans. Mississippi had simmered for another day. Night had come again. The muggy blanket descended, the electric symphony crackled through the trees, and in one small town that would lead all of Mississippi in violence that summer, the night riders came out.
SNCC had decided not to send volunteers to McComb. After further discussion, Klan-infested Pike County, where blacks had been disappearing all spring, was deemed too dangerous. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., SNCC’s decision suddenly seemed wise. Bolting upright in bed, a black woman looked out her front window to see a shiny new Chevy skid to a halt. A man jumped out and tossed a package. As the woman scrambled to the back of her house, the explosion leveled the porch, blew in the front door, and littered her bed with glass. Moments later, another bomb, then another, rocked homes of longtime civil rights supporters. The following morning, while blacks surveyed the rubble, the eyes of America turned to a remote corner of the Magnolia State and to a town whose name meant “Brotherly Love.”
When it awoke on the last morning of its past, Philadelphia (pop. 5,017) looked much like any other Mississippi hamlet. Rising above a two-story skyline, dozens of short, sharp steeples aimed at the heavens. Smokestacks from three sawmills belched black clouds. Downtown merchants pushed brooms outside the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, the A & P, and the Piggly-Wiggly. Along covered sidewalks, clusters of sun-shriveled old men sat on wooden benches, smoking, spitting, watching their town awaken. Pickups passed as if on parade. A farmer in overalls waved from a tractor. Mothers walked with crew-cut boys in tow. By 9:00 a.m. the sun baked the gravel streets, giving the old men no reason to believe June 23 would be different from any other Tuesday. Some may have seen network reports about the three men said to have disappeared in their county—more “Northern-managed news.” Whatever the problem was, things would soon go back to normal. “Normal” in Philadelphia was as homespun as the upcoming Neshoba County Dairy Princess contest; “normal” was as timeless as the courthouse. With its Corinthian columns and Confederate statue, the brick building was the bedrock of the town some called “the other Philadelphia.” Yet there was still another Philadelphia within this one.
Down a snaking dirt road and across the railroad tracks stood Independence Quarters. There, in tiny homes with boarded-up windows, Philadelphia blacks “scratched it out.” Independence Quarters had its own school, its own churches, its own version of Mississippi. And when word spread that three men were missing in Neshoba County, few in “the quarters” doubted the story. Folks said it must have something to do with the burning of that church. The church that was supposed to host a Freedom School. The church that a young CORE worker had visited a few weeks back.
White Philadelphia had not heard of the church burning. A local bank president had convinced editors to kill the story, and it had not run in a single Mississippi paper. Those few who knew considered it typical—niggers fighting over this or that, burning their own church. That, too, would all blow over. Things always did in Philadelphia, which, having no antebellum mansions, no battlefields or plantations, prided itself on its hospitality and its “fair-minded, Christian people.” Yet that was about to change, starting with the people.
The old men spotted the invaders first. By 10:00 a.m., whichever way they looked, they saw strangers with sunglasses and briefcases, white shirts and skinny ties. Each man drove a dark sedan with a whiplike antenna, and each seemed nervous, scribbling notes, scanning the town square, avoiding eye contact. The old men huddled on benches, sharing fears instilled by grandparents, fears of Yankees, carpetbaggers, and a war that had never really ended. Now the nightmare was starting again. Now, in numbers no one in Mississippi could have imagined, the FBI had invaded Neshoba County.
All Tuesday morning, the FBI set up operations. At the Delphia Courts Motel, a right angle of dilapidated rooms fronting a concrete lot, Room 18 became FBI headquarters. Behind city hall, agents installed a communications center and began erecting an antenna on the wide, squat water tower. After establishing radio contact with Washington, they set out to visit the police, the courthouse, and the jail. The jailer told agents she had fined James Chaney twenty dollars and released the three at 10:30 p.m. Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a brawny, moon-faced man with an “aw shucks” smile, said he had arrested the men, all right. He had last seen them on Sunday night, heading south on Highway 19 toward Meridian. He had watched their taillights disappear over a hill. Agents were soon driving along the rolling two-lane, stopping to peer into swamps that seemed eerily still. But by noon, swamp waters rippled as FBI helicopters swooped low, flapping laundry on clothes-lines, sending chickens scurrying.
Back in town, as the temperature hit 100, tempers flared. Enraged men, arms waving, mouths like open scars, confronted reporters outside the courthouse. Didn’t they know they were being duped? It was all a hoax! Those three boys just took off! And if agents knew what was good for them, they’d damn sure do likewise. Going house to house, agents met stone walls. No one would talk. No one would even listen. A hoax. Then toward 3:30 p.m., bulletins broke into radio and TV nationwide. The blue Ford had been found, not south of Philadelphia, where Deputy Price said he had watched its taillights vanish, but near the Choctaw Reservation, fifteen miles north of town.
Choctaw Indians fishing in a creek had spotted the smoldering wreckage. The head of the reservation called the FBI, whose agents waded in to find the car, sizzling hot, protruding from a blackberry thicket at the edge of the Bogue Chitto swamp. The car’s interior was as black as an oven. A rear wheel was missing, but the license—H25 503—checked out. Towed from the swamp, its muffler dangling, its windshield blown out, the charred vehicle was hauled into town. Within minutes, word reached the White House.
Lyndon Johnson had learned of the summer project back in April. “They’re sending them in by buses in the hundreds from all over the country to help ’em register,” Johnson told Georgia senator Richard Russell. “And they’re gonna try to get ’em all registered in Mississippi. And there’re gonna be a bunch of killings.” Yet heeding his aide’s advice, the president had ignored all pleas for protection. Johnson had other pressing problems that Tuesday. He had to replace his ambassador to Vietnam, screen vice presidential candidates, and plan the ceremony to sign the Civil Rights Act. But all morning and into the afternoon, Mississippi kept coming up—in his press conference, in phone calls, in bulletins. Johnson was outraged by suggestions that he was not doing enough to find the missing men. “I asked Hoover two weeks ago, after talking to the Attorney General, to fill up Mississippi with FBI men and infiltrate everything he could,” the president said. “I’ve asked him to put more men after these three kids. . . . I’m shoving in as much as I know how.” At 3:00 p.m., Johnson’s archrival Robert Kennedy met with the Goodmans and Nathan Schwerner, but the president did not want to follow suit. “I’m afraid that if I start house mothering each kid that’s gone down there and that doesn’t show up, that we’ll have this White House full of people every day asking for sympathy.” Finally, Johnson asked Nicholas Katzenbach, deputy assistant attorney general, what he thought had happened to the three.
“I think they got picked up by some of these Klan people, would be my guess.”
“Yeah, probably. Or else they’re just being hidden on one of those barns or something . . . and having the hell scared out of them. But I would not be surprised if they’d been murdered, Mr. President. Pretty rough characters.” Katzenbach agreed the president should not see the parents. “I think you’d have a problem of every future one. . . . This is not going to be the only time this sort of thing will occur, I’m afraid.” Toward 4:00 p.m., Johnson was on the phone with Senator James Eastland, who was calling from his plantation in Ruleville.
“I don’t believe there’s three missing,” Eastland told LBJ. “I believe it’s a publicity stunt.” No Klan was active in Neshoba County, the senator lied. “There’s no white organizations in that area of Mississippi. Who could possibly harm them? ” The conversation was interrupted by a call from J. Edgar Hoover.
“Mr. President, I wanted to let you know we’ve found the car. . . . Now whether there are any bodies in the car, we won’t know until we can get into the car ourselves . . . but I did want you to know. Apparently what’s happened—these men have been killed.”
“Well now, what would make you think they’ve been killed?” the president asked.
“Because of the fact that it is the same car that they were in in Philadelphia, Mississippi . . . ,” Hoover answered. “This is merely an assumption that probably they were burned in the car. On the other hand, they may have been taken out and killed on the outside.”
“Or maybe kidnapped and locked up.”
“Well, I would doubt whether those people down there would give them even that much of a break.”
Hoover called back an hour later, but the conversation was cut short when Carolyn and Robert Goodman were escorted into the Oval Office. With them was Nathan Schwerner. Frazzled, red-eyed from lack of sleep, the parents had flown from New York that morning. Hearing the president mention the car, Carolyn Goodman wanted to leap over the huge desk, shouting, “Are they all right?” LBJ hung up, stepped around the desk, and, towering over the slim blond woman, took her hand and broke the news. The “three kids” were still missing, he said. All the powers of the Justice Department and the Department of Defense were being thrown into the search. After twenty minutes, the families left, impressed that the president, as Carolyn Goodman recalled, “changed from a public figure . . . to a human being genuinely concerned about the life of my son.”
That afternoon in Neshoba County, heat melted into thundershowers, curtailing the FBI search, but aftershocks continued to ripple across America. TV bulletins interrupted soap operas and quiz shows: Robert Kennedy was canceling a trip to Poland. The president was sending former CIA director Allen Dulles to Jackson. More FBI agents were on their way. When night fell again, COFO’s WATS line recorded local shock waves. Every report of harassment, every call about a late volunteer, stirred panic. And for the third night in a row, the terror ratcheted up another notch. Shots hit a black minister’s home and a Negro café in Jackson. A firebomb struck a meeting hall on the Gulf Coast. Rumors spread through the coastal town of Moss Point—two black children had eaten poisoned candy thrown from a passing car. One was dead. In the Delta, whites chased reporters out of Ruleville, then drove through “the quarters” hurling bottles and Molotov cocktails.
On Wednesday morning, photos of the charred station wagon jutting from a Mississippi swamp accompanied front-page headlines across the nation: “Burned Car Clue in Hunt for Three Men” (Washington Post), “Dulles Will Direct Rights Trio Hunt” (Los Angeles Times), “Wreckage Raises New Fears over Fate of Missing Men” (New York Times). By noon, marchers were picketing federal buildings in Chicago, New York, and the nation’s capital. At the NAACP national convention in Washington, D.C., members walked out to join the protests. Robert Kennedy went with Myrlie Evers, Medgar’s widow, to shake hands with demonstrators. Back at the epicenter, police with shotguns, automatic weapons, and riot clubs circled the Neshoba County courthouse. All along the street, all through shops and stores, all up and down covered sidewalks, locals seethed with rage and denial.
“They had no business down here.”
“COFO must have burned their own car to make the hoax look convincing. They’re probably far out of the county laughing.”
“This wouldn’t have happened if they had stayed home where they belong.”
“How long do you think we’d last in Harlem? ”
Swarming with reporters, invaded by the FBI, “the other Philadelphia” was just a shot away from a full-blown race war. Shortly after noon, the trigger was cocked when a caravan of cars approached the Neshoba County line.
Fluttering like a mirage as it rolled along Highway 19, the caravan carried black leaders—CORE’s James Farmer; SNCC’s John Lewis; Dick Gregory, just back from the Soviet Union—and teenagers ready to search for bodies. All had been warned about Neshoba County. “Farmer, don’t go over there,” the head of the Mississippi State Police said. “That’s one of the worst redneck areas in the state.” The caravan crossed the county line. Beneath the blazing sun, the cars passed swamps, farms, and Calvary crosses by the pebbled roadside. At the Philadelphia city limits, the cars halted before a scene out of a cheap Western. Like some posse, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and several men with shotguns stood across the road. Rainey, an enormous, paunchy man in a cowboy hat, with a wad of tobacco bulging his cheek, strode up to the lead car and loomed over it. “Where do you think you’re goin’? ” he asked Farmer.
Like most in Neshoba County, the sheriff mocked the disappearance. The three men were “hid somewhere trying to get a lot of publicity out of it, I figure.” After spitting on the asphalt, Rainey told Farmer he would only meet with four men. The rest would have to wait by the highway. Moments later, Rainey’s patrol car led a lone sedan into town. At the courthouse, the black men walked past glaring white faces, then rode a silent elevator to the sheriff’s office. Inside, a slow ceiling fan kept the temperature just below ninety. The black men bristled, tense and indignant, but Rainey and Deputy Price seemed delighted by the attention, smirking and joking while county attorneys handled all questions.
Farmer demanded to visit the burned-out Mt. Zion Church. He was told he would need a search warrant. John Lewis insisted on seeing the burned Ford wagon. He was refused, lest he “destroy evidence.” So there had been a crime, Lewis countered. “If there has been a crime,” the lawyer said with a smile. “Those boys may have decided to go up north or someplace and have a short vacation. They’ll probably be coming back shortly.” Farmer mentioned his young volunteers, ready to search. Heads shook. Private property. Water moccasins. Trespassing. “We don’t want anything to happen to you down here.” After several brittle minutes, the black men were escorted outside, past the shotguns and sour faces, to the cars waiting at city limits. All were certain the smug sheriff and his smiling deputy knew exactly what had happened to the missing men.
Back in Meridian, as thunder rattled rooftops, a mass meeting crackled with anger. Dick Gregory offered $25,000—just arranged in a call to Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner—to anyone finding the missing men and those responsible. That evening, rain clouds parted to reveal an eclipsing moon. In small towns across the state, “redneck boys” roared through “Niggertowns,” shouting, throwing bottles, daring anyone to mess with Mississippi.
Someone had miscalculated. Someone had not recognized how times had changed. Time was when a murder in Mississippi had stayed in Mississippi, when few even heard about the crime, when the rest of America went about its business, distanced by culture and geography. But that time had passed. It was 1964, and when three men disappeared in the most remote corner of the South’s most rural state, the whole nation heard the news the next day. Whoever knew the whereabouts of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney must have been surprised to see what an old-fashioned Mississippi lynching—if that’s what it had been—had unleashed. Because never had a disappearance in the Deep South sent such tremors through the nation. The alarm also paid unwelcome tribute to the planners of Freedom Summer. Their cynicism had been dead on. All the blacks murdered in Mississippi since Emmett Till had scarcely raised concerns beyond state borders. The killing of Herbert Lee had been reported in just one major newspaper; the murder of Louis Allen was found only on back pages. But when whites were killed . . . “It’s a shame that national concern is aroused only after two white boys are missing,” John Lewis told the press. SNCCs had expected as much, but someone in Mississippi had not.
By Thursday, even the president of the United States was counting the days. “I imagine they’re in that lake,” Johnson told an aide that afternoon. “It’s my guess. Three days now.” The rest of the nation watched and waited. The concern was for more than just three men. Murder had always marred America’s self-image, but it had been an especially disfiguring year. The previous twelve months had seen Medgar Evers gunned down in his driveway, four little girls killed in a Birmingham church, the assassination in Dallas, and the televised murder of the alleged assassin. A strangler was on the loose in Boston, throttling innocent women. In New York that spring, Kitty Genovese had been murdered in full view of dozens of neighbors, who had not even called the police. Now came this news from Mississippi. What was America becoming? “We are basically a law abiding nation,” President Johnson reminded Americans that week. But so long as three men were missing in Mississippi, the jury was still out.
Although the FBI had begun to move, although two hundred sailors from the Meridian Naval Air Station were preparing to join the search, SNCC had little faith in any federal investigation. “We need the FBI before the fact,” Bob Moses said. “We have them now after the fact.” SNCC had to conduct its own search. Shortly after the news reached Ohio, two cars left the leafy campus. Taking different routes lest both be halted by police, the drivers planned to rendezvous that Tuesday afternoon in Meridian. Crossing into Mississippi, each team phoned in on schedule. “No word yet.” One car was delayed outside Holly Springs by ATAC students lecturing about the Tenth Amendment. Still, it arrived on time. The other was . . . missing. More panic swept through the Meridian office, panic that continued all night and into Wednesday morning. When Stokely Carmichael and Charlie Cobb finally showed up, they told of another near miss. Their old Buick had broken down in Durant, a town “knowed for mean.” Cops had not bought their cover—that they were schoolteachers headed for a Florida vacation. Carmichael was held overnight, but Cobb was told—at 10:00 p.m.—that he could go free. He refused, was thrown out of jail, and spent a terrifying night in the car, clutching a tire iron and “praying for sunrise.” The following morning, Cobb bailed out Carmichael and they drove to Meridian, ready to search.
Toward dusk on the third day after the disappearance, SNCC’s search team snuck into Neshoba County. Making their way along back roads, they visited the ashes of the Mt. Zion Church, then found refuge in a shack filled with rifles. Over a dinner of collards and ham hocks, they heard what local blacks thought had happened. The three had surely been killed by “those same peckerwoods” who burned the church. “Ain’t no telling where they done hid the bodies.” The men waited until midnight, then set out for the swamps. Their hosts drove them as James Chaney would have, headlights out, slamming over rutted roads, clambering deeper into Klan territory, where a wrong turn would have meant a flogging or another disappearance. Piling out of pickups, they spread out into swamps and creeks, searched barns and wells, used long sticks to probe muddy ditches. The muggy night seemed alive with fear. Any moment they expected to hear the thud of stick against a shoulder or torso, but all they heard were snakes hissing, mosquitoes whining, and deerflies buzzing their ears. They trudged on, ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep. Vines snagged their clothes; brambles slashed their arms. The teams searched until the sky turned salmon pink, returned to cabins to sweat more than sleep, then searched again the following midnight, tracking down the latest rumors. “So and so said they saw something. . . . We heard tell. . . . So and so heard the white people talking about . . .” Finally, rumors said the Klan had learned of their presence, and the midnight searches were called off.
On Thursday afternoon, striding into those same swamps came the two hundred sailors ordered by President Johnson. All wore white sailor hats and grimy old shoes. The men taped pant legs to their ankles to keep leeches out. Grabbing branches to fend off snakes, the sailors searched until dusk. Before plunging in, many noted how strangely evil a Mississippi swamp appeared. The waters were opaque, calm, and flat, with no clue to their depths. Dragon-flies, like little blue helicopters, darted over floating logs. Heat hung like a shroud over the pea-green carpet, but nothing beneath it stirred. And then, every so often from the black water below, a bubble surfaced, popped, and was gone.
From Lyndon Johnson on down, federal officials thought they were doing everything possible to find the men. But what about preventing future disappearances? Congressmen were besieged by parents’ calls and telegrams demanding that federal marshals protect their children. LBJ’s men were unanimously opposed. Sending in troops, said Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, “would have an irretrievable effect for two or three generations.” Robert Kennedy insisted Mississippi’s smoldering violence was “a local matter for local law enforcement.” Prominent law professors disagreed, issuing a statement citing the Justice Department’s legal right to intervene. But intervene how? Protecting “a thousand of these youngsters going down there . . . living in the homes of the colored population” would be an “almost superhuman task,” J. Edgar Hoover told Allen Dulles. With Klansmen in the Mississippi Highway Patrol, Klansmen among “the chiefs of police,” even some sheriffs in the Klan, “you almost have got to keep an agent with them as they come into the state,” Hoover said. In New York, Malcolm X offered members of his Muslim Mosque as protection. No one took him up on the offer.
Newspapers and Congress soon joined the debate. The Washington Post praised “this breathtakingly admirable group of youngsters” but said federal protection was “simply impossible.” The New York Times outlined the risks of “a second Reconstruction.” On the Senate floor, Mississippi’s John Stennis was urging the president to issue “a firm, positive statement” to stop “this invasion” when New York’s Jacob Javits leaped to his feet. Americans, Javits shouted, had the right to go anywhere they wanted. Stennis responded that any blood shed in Mississippi “will be on the hands of those who formed and led this invasion into a state where they were not welcome nor invited.” Faced with pressure to do something, LBJ stood firm. He would send more FBI that weekend, but he would not be responsible for a “second Reconstruction.” “I’m not going to send troops on my people if I can avoid it,” he said. “And they got to help me avoid it.”
Would Mississippi help? Overnight, the long-dreaded “invasion” had come to resemble an occupation. Sailors slogged through swamps. Reporters from across America as well as France, England, and Germany descended on Philadelphia. FBI agents were stopping cars at checkpoints. Aluminum skiffs were motoring along a coffee-brown river as agents dragged grappling hooks along its bottom. The occupation stirred deep resentments, bringing the sediment to the surface. Watching the search from a bridge, several young men lit up Marlboros and traded jokes: “We throw two or three niggers in every year to feed the fish,” one yucked. Another told the FBI how to find James Chaney. “Why don’t you just float a relief check out there on top of the water? That black sonofabitch’ll reach up and grab it.” A few sober voices spoke in private, but only a few. “You know damn well our law is mixed up in this,” a Philadelphia man told the Rotary Club. “I can’t see why we have to protect them.” A local woman was appalled: “The idea of these people trying to defend murder!” The way things were going, many said, Mississippi would be under federal occupation by mid-July. And wasn’t it a shame, one added, given that the whole affair “if it was boiled down to gravy there wouldn’t be much to it, no how.”
Suspicions of a hoax were spreading throughout Mississippi. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger claimed Andrew Goodman had been spotted boarding a bus in Baton Rouge. CORE, rumor had it, had phoned police on Sunday afternoon before the men came up missing. And the Schwerners’ VW? Odd that it was nowhere to be found. Letters to editors “proved” the hoax; otherwise why would Andrew Goodman, whose boyish face networks were showing in footage from the Ohio training, have been filmed before he “disappeared” ? And wasn’t Mississippi getting a black eye on the nightly news? Walter Cronkite spoke of “Bloody Neshoba.” NBC interviewed a Neshoba County man who said Sheriff Rainey was involved. ABC let Mississippians damn their state with callous denial: “I believe them jokers planned this and are sittin’ up in New York laughin’ at us Mississippi folk,” one man said. A woman added, “If they’re dead, I feel like they asked for it. They came here lookin’ for trouble.”
In contrast to Mississippi, the aggrieved families displayed uncommon grace. On Thursday afternoon, TV cameras jammed the Goodmans’ stylish Manhattan apartment. While flashbulbs popped, Carolyn Goodman read an appeal “to all parents everywhere, particularly the parents of Mississippi who, like myself, have experienced the softness, the warmth and the beauty of a child whom they cherish and love and want to protect. I want to beg them to cooperate in every way possible in the search for these three boys.” Graying Anne Schwerner then spoke about James Chaney, “a Negro, a friend, and a brother to my boy Mickey.” Though she had never met Mrs. Chaney, she wished “I could take her in my arms.” Back in Mississippi, Fannie Lee Chaney said little, even when a cross was burned on her lawn. This was not the first disappearance in her family. Decades earlier, her grandfather had refused to sell his land to a white man. Only his shoes, shirt, and watch were ever found. Now, head in her hands, the stunned woman told the press, “I’m just hoping and not thinking.” Like President Johnson, most assumed the three men were dead. “For God’s sake,” Nathan Schwerner shouted at a reporter. “Don’t you know we’ll never see Mickey again?” An FBI agent confided, “We’re now looking for bodies.” Yet the mothers insisted their sons might be found in some jail, some barn, somewhere. While they held out hope, Rita Schwerner, whom some had thought too small and frail to work in Mississippi, returned to take on the entire state.
As the mothers spoke to the press, Rita flew into Jackson. Speaking to reporters at the airport, she announced, “I am going to find my husband and the other two people. I am going to find out what happened to them.” Rita also issued several demands—“that scores of federal marshals be sent to Mississippi . . . that there be a full scale investigation of reports of the involvement of some law enforcement officers . . . that President Johnson’s personal envoy Allen Dulles confer with those in Meridian who know precisely what is going on.” “In a word,” she concluded, “we demand ‘freedom now.’ ” Accompanied by SNCC’s Bob Zellner, Rita then headed for the capitol to speak to Governor Paul Johnson.
After listening to a clerk go on and on about the beauty of Mississippi, Rita finally learned the governor was at his mansion, greeting George Wallace. “I’m sure Wallace is much more important to Mississippi than three missing men,” Rita said. Entering the mansion grounds, she found the two governors heading a receiving line. Stepping in line, she heard someone mention the missing men. And she heard Johnson joke, “Governor Wallace and I are the only ones who know where they are, and we’re not telling.” Moments later, when Johnson bent to greet Rita, Bob Zellner shook his hand and introduced her as the wife of Michael Schwerner. When Johnson recoiled, Zellner held tightly to his hand, asking if it was true “that you and Governor Wallace here know where the missing civil rights workers are?” Panic broke out as reporters shouted questions and state troopers yanked Zellner away. Wallace and Johnson retreated inside and slammed the door. Hustled off the grounds, Rita moved on to meet Allen Dulles. The president’s envoy kept her waiting fo rty-five minutes, then spoke with her for five. When Dulles offered his sympathy, Rita replied, “I don’t want your sympathy! I want my husband back!”
On Friday afternoon, Rita was in Philadelphia talking to FBI agents at the Delphia Courts Motel. Suddenly Sheriff Rainey pulled in to the concrete lot. Striding up to her, the tobacco chaw still in his cheek, Rainey barked, “What in the goddamn hell are you doin’ here?” Rita stood her ground. She would not leave until she saw the station wagon. As a menacing crowd gathered, Rainey invited Rita into his patrol car to talk. Sensing the woman’s mood, a highway patrol investigator warned Rita not to be too hard on the sheriff. His wife was in the hospital.
“Well, at least he still has a wife to be concerned about,” Rita said. “I ask him only to do me the courtesy of telling me where my husband is.”
“But the sheriff doesn’t know that.”
Rita persisted. “Sheriff Rainey, I feel that you know what happened. I’m going to find out if I can. If you don’t want me to find out, you’ll have to kill me.”
Rainey’s neck reddened. His fists clenched the steering wheel. “I’m very shocked,” he said softly. “I’m sorry you said that.” The sheriff then took Rita and Zellner to see the station wagon. While garage mechanics hooted Rebel yells, they eyed the blackened shell. Since the moment she heard the car had been found, Rita had known she would never see her husband again. Now she saw the proof. When she and Zellner left, a green pickup, the same one that had blocked the highway when they entered Philadelphia that morning, chased them out of town.
By week’s end, Mississippi had become a national obsession. Only weeks earlier, all civil rights news had come out of St. Augustine, Florida, where Martin Luther King and others were braving the Klan and white mobs to integrate public pools and beaches. But suddenly, TV, radio, and newspapers turned to the Magnolia State, reporting on its alarming poverty and backwoods violence. James Silver’s Mississippi: The Closed Society, calling the state “as near to approximating a police state as anything we have yet seen in America,” hit best-seller lists. Folksingers from Judy Collins to Pete Seeger began scheduling summer concerts in Jackson, Greenville, and McComb. Dozens of doctors and lawyers signed up to spend July or August in Mississippi, and SNCC offices were flooded with calls from people hoping to volunteer, so many that Bob Moses spoke out: “A wave of untrained and unoriented volunteers into the project areas would serve only to disrupt what is now a well-controlled plan of operation throughout the state.” That afternoon in Chicago, a black man pulled his car over near the Calumet Express-way, took out a rifle, and shot himself in the head. A policeman found his note: “This is for the three in Philadelphia. They wouldn’t let me join the movement and I’m giving my brain this way.”
Under the national spotlight, Philadelphia was at a breaking point. Appalled by reporters and FBI “swarm[ing] upon our land like termites on old lumber,” people huddled on street corners, talking, whispering when strangers passed. Near the courthouse, a driver rammed a cameraman’s car. When the cameraman stepped out, so did the driver, clutching a hunting knife. Police intervened. Angry whites trailed New York Times reporter Claude Sitton, who sought safety through a chance connection. It happened that the small town making national news was the hometown of the Times’s managing editor. Learning how his town was behaving, Turner Catledge had written a friend, “Where, oh where, are those decent people I used to know? ” Now, as menacing whites approached Sitton, he and a Newsweek reporter ducked into the hardware store owned by Catledge’s uncle. “Be frank with you, Sitton,” the uncle said. “If you were a black man being whupped out here on the sidewalk, I might help you. But you got no business here. And I wouldn’t lift a finger if they was stomping the hell out of you.” As the two reporters drove toward their hotel, a car chased them to the county line.
On the fifth night of what everyone was now calling the “long hot summer,” Mississippi erupted. In town after town, volunteers were hounded by pickups, taunted by obscenities, arrested on trumped-up charges. Beer cans flew, and a SNCC car’s tires were slashed. In Hattiesburg, whites spread flyers through the black community warning: “Beware, good Negro citizens. When we come to get the agitators, stay away.” Near Jackson, someone broke into a church, doused the floor in kerosene, and tossed a match. In the midst of this mayhem, the most startling news came from the Delta. On Thursday, two volunteers had been abducted at gunpoint—“Want us to do to you what they did over in Philadelphia?”—and held at a gas station awaiting a bus to send them north. On the COFO log, it was just another in the lengthening list of incidents, but the following evening, the FBI arrested three white men in Itta Bena. SNCCs could barely believe the news. “You dig it?” a volunteer wrote home. “They are in a Southern jail!” That night, warned that a church would be bombed, Itta Bena cops surrounded it and kept all whites away.
Of all the Americans watching the news that week, none watched with greater alarm than the volunteers in Ohio, bound for Mississippi. SNCC structured its second training much like the first, yet volunteers found the mood on campus “like a funeral parlor.” From the first bulletins out of Neshoba County, frantic parents began calling, begging their children to come home. All week, psychiatrist Robert Coles met with anxious, terrified volunteers. Diagnosing panic, “near psychosis,” or just “character disorders,” Coles sent eight students home. But in the rest, he witnessed the power of idealism. “Suddenly hundreds of young Americans became charged with new energy and determination,” Coles wrote. “Suddenly I saw fear turn into toughness, vacillation into quiet conviction.” Many volunteers found their way to the chapel. Others crowded around TVs to watch Walter Cronkite, to see the car towed out of the swamp, to watch the ABC special The Search in Mississippi . When the program ended, volunteers joined hands and sang. “You know what we’re all doing,” one man told the group. “We’re moving the world.”
The first volunteers, trained for voter registration, had arrived with the confidence of young politicos. But this second group consisted of Freedom School teachers. Accustomed to working with children, they now faced the likelihood of being beaten, jailed, even murdered. All that week, they struggled to explain to terrified parents why they would not turn back.
Dear Mom and Dad,
This letter is hard to write because I would like so much to communicate how I feel and I don’t know if I can. It is very hard to answer to your attitude that if I loved you I wouldn’t do this—hard, because the thought is cruel. I can only hope you have the sensitivity to understand that I can both love you very much and desire to go to Mississippi . . .
. . . You should know that it would be a lot nicer in Hawaii than in Mississippi this summer. I am afraid of the situation down there, and the beaches and the safety are very alluring. But I am perhaps more afraid of the kind of life I would fall into in Hawaii. I sense somehow that I am at a crucial moment in my life and that to return home where everything is secure and made for me would be to choose a kind of death. . . . I feel the urgent need, somehow, to enter life, to be born into it. . . .
On their last evening in the safe North, volunteers again filled the campus auditorium. A spectral déjà vu loomed over the meeting. The previous Friday night, the three missing men had sat in this same auditorium, sang these same songs, heard these same leaders. Now this second group would follow them down. First, however, they listened one last time to Bob Moses.
Sighing and starting in, Moses asked if anyone had read the book that was becoming trendy on campuses, Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring. It had much to say about good and evil, he said. Then pausing, rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses, Moses said softly, “The kids are dead.” He hesitated, letting his words sink in. “When we heard the news at the beginning I knew they were dead. When we heard they had been arrested I knew there had been a frame-up. We didn’t say this earlier because of Rita, because she was really holding out for every hope. There may be more deaths. . . .” Across the auditorium, some looked at their feet, others remained riveted on the reluctant “Jesus of the movement.” “I justify myself because I’m taking risks myself,” Moses continued, “and I’m not asking people to do things I’m not willing to do. And the other thing is, people were being killed already, the Negroes of Mississippi, and I feel, anyway, responsible for their deaths. Herbert Lee killed, Louis Allen killed, five others killed this year. In some way you have to come to grips with that, know what it means. If you are going to do anything about it, other people are going to be killed.”
Moses knew what some were saying—that the summer project was “an attempt to get some people killed so the federal government will move into Mississippi.” Yet he saw a bigger, darker picture. “In our country we have some real evil, and the attempt to do something about it involves enormous effort . . . and therefore tremendous risks. If for any reason you’re hesitant about what you’re getting into, it’s better for you to leave. Because what has got to be done has to be done in a certain way, or otherwise it won’t get done.” Volunteers sat, some faces streaked with tears, others just shining on Moses, pinning their faith in America, in humanity, on his words.
“I would have gone anywhere,” one woman recalled. “I would have done anything he asked me to do, I trusted him so much.”
After a few more comments, Moses slowly walked out. No one said a word, no one took the stage. Volunteers sat in the stillness. Finally from the back of the auditorium, a lone woman sang:
They say that freedom is a constant struggle is a constant struggle
They say that freee-dom is a constant struggle.
Across the auditorium, people crossed arms, held hands, joined in.
Many stayed up all night. A laundry room discussion lasted until 4:00 a.m. Others just wandered. A few stood in phone booths, arguing with parents. “If someone in Nazi Germany had done what we’re doing,” one woman shouted, “then your brother would still be alive!” A Long Island woman heard her father yell, “You’re killing your mother! Do you know what it takes to make a child?” But all Heather Tobis could think was, “Do you know what it takes to make a child in Mississippi?” The following evening, Tobis was on one of two buses heading south. Songs again paced the miles through Kentucky and into Tennessee. The buses reached Memphis at 5:00 a.m. Sunday. And there was Bob Moses to help them make connections to Greyhounds stopping in Clarksdale, Vicksburg, Ruleville. . . .
A hot, syrupy haze hung above a sea of knee-high cotton when, at 2:00 p.m., the Greyhound pulled into Ruleville. On that crawling Sunday, the Delta town of 2,000 slumbered, but when twenty volunteers stepped out with luggage, boxes, and bedrolls, Ruleville awoke in a foul mood. Across from the bus station, several brawny white men, beer cans in hand, stared down the newcomers. Seconds later, a woman wearing pink hair curlers drove past the bus and waved her middle finger. The sheriff’s pickup pulled up with a German shepherd in back, snarling, tearing at his cage. Next came the mayor, a short, jowly man stepping from his car, wearing a straw hat. When several black families drove up, another standoff looked likely, but then Fannie Lou Hamer strode onto the scene. The sturdy woman directed host families to take everyone to her house. There they met volunteers who had arrived the previous Sunday. All enjoyed an enormous lunch, then cooled off beneath the billowing pecan tree out front. Filling Hamer’s lawn, fanning themselves in the shade, newcomers learned that voter registration was under way. Canvassers had been chased out of the “tough town” of Drew, but some locals had already gone to the courthouse in Indianola. And fifty kids had signed up for Freedom School.
That evening, volunteers and locals gathered at the Williams Chapel, just around the corner from Hamer’s house. Four days earlier, a Molotov cocktail had charred the small church, but flames somehow missed plastic sacks of gasoline laid around the perimeter. The Ruleville fire department put out the blaze, leaving blackened concrete and a congregation feeling blessed. By the time Sunday’s mass meeting began, a hundred people were crammed into a single room. Bare bulbs cast thin shadows on a photo of Jesus and a banner reading “We Shall Overcome.”
“Be strong and of good courage,” the preacher urged. “God sometimes likes us to feel we can’t go any further . . .”
“That’s because God only helps us with the impossible things we can’t achieve by ourselves . . .”
When the preacher finished, a volunteer from Illinois announced the FBI arrests in Itta Bena. The FBI had not acted “because it wanted to,” he said. “They did it because they had to. . . . The whole nation is watching you and admiring you, and you must keep on and you must stand up.” Then came the songs, swelling and surging. Uplifted faces, black and white, glistened as they sang.
Nearly five hundred volunteers were now in Mississippi. A few would be gone within a week, leaving in terror or despair. The rest would stay on for what would be either a breakthrough summer or, as the New York Times now feared, a “racial holocaust.” That Sunday morning in Neshoba County, black parishioners prayed in makeshift pews beside the rubble of the Mt. Zion Church. FBI agents again piled into skiffs to drag the Pearl River. In Philadelphia, agents were preparing to question Sheriff Rainey. Posters with mug shots of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney below the words “Missing—Call FBI” were now posted all over the South. Rita Schwerner was on her way to meet President Johnson, while mayors throughout Mississippi talked of heading to Washington, D.C., to protest “the invasion.” At dusk, a candlelight vigil for the missing men marched in silence outside the White House. Back in Mississippi, a few more volunteers, having driven their own cars from Ohio, arrived in their towns. All the way down, one kept saying, “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. It’s still the United States of America.”
Integrity can be neither lost nor concealed nor faked nor quenched nor artificially come by nor outlived, nor, I believe, in the long run, denied.