Mississippi has almost certainly been the home to more Civil Rights-related murders than any other state in this nation. One that comes immediately to the minds of most people are the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by members of the KKK, some of whom, ironically, were also members of law enforcement in June 1964. The three were civil rights workers who had been working with the Freedom Summer campaign by attempting to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote and it was for that reason they were murdered.
Their story, as most of you know, was immortalized in the film Mississippi Burning (1988), starring Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman, as well as numerous other books and documentaries. Nine men, including Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey, were later identified as parties to the conspiracy to murder Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.
In 1967, more than three years after the murders, seven men — Cecil Price, Klan Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers, Alton Wayne Roberts, Jimmy Snowden, Billy Wayne Posey, Horace Barnette, and Jimmy Arledge – were tried on charges related to the murders, but none were charged with the actual murders and none served sentences longer than six years. Mississippi, folks, home of the KKK, of white supremacy. The white judge in the trial was a known opponent of the Civil Rights Movement; the jury was all-white, and one juror even said later that she “could never convict a preacher”.
In 2005, after investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell1 for the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger unearthed new witnesses and evidence, a new trial took place, this one for three counts of murder against Edgar Ray Killen, the man who had masterminded the plot to murder Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. He was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to three consecutive 20 year sentences. He died in prison on January 11, 2018, six days before his 93rd birthday. The others, including those who actually pulled the trigger, remained free after serving their short sentences, allowed to walk on the same sidewalks as everyone else.
Throughout those years, white supremacy still reigned in Mississippi and to some extent still does today. Say what you will, a leopard does not change its spots and people with prejudices and hatred in their hearts pass those prejudices on to the next generation and so it becomes an endless chain, a vicious circle.
Though there have been many high-profile murders of Black people in Mississippi, the other most well-remembered is that of Medgar Evers, a civil rights worker with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) who was shot and killed right outside his front door on the night of June 12, 1963. His killer was a known white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith.
De La Beckwith was quickly arrested after his gun with his fingerprints was discovered to have been the murder weapon, but two trials in 1964 ended in hung juries and De La Beckwith walked free. Two law enforcement officers lied and said they had seen Beckwith at a service station some 90 miles away around the time of the murder, but their story was never credible. Still, an all-white, all-male jury couldn’t find their way clear to convict a blatant killer.
An interesting aside: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Mr. Evers’ funeral and was stopped by police at the funeral. I’ve been unable to find out why, but we can logically deduce it was because of the colour of his skin and his efforts to end the segregation that was so prevalent in Mississippi.
The same investigative reporter, Jerry Mitchell1, who delved deeper into the killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner did some similar digging into the Evers murder and eventually discovered new witnesses and enough new evidence to open a new investigation that led to a new trial of De La Beckwith in 1994. It came out then that De La Beckwith had actually bragged about killing Evers, whom he had referred to as a “chicken-stealing dog.” In this third and final trial, De La Beckwith was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison where he died in 2001 at the age of 80.
These are but a couple of the many brutal murders that have taken place in Mississippi for no other reason that the victim was Black. Racial hatred … there is no room for it in this country, and yet it persists in this, the 21st century. After all these thousands of years that humans have inhabited planet Earth, wouldn’t you think humans would have learned that there is no reason to believe that a person with lighter skin is somehow better, has more value, than a person with darker skin? My friend Brosephus stated at the beginning of Black History Month that “Black History is American History” … and we know he’s right, but it seems like there are a hell of a lot of people who didn’t get that memo!
Inflation, a volatile situation on the Ukraine border, a deadly pandemic that has, as of this moment, taken millions of lives, at least 953,000 in the U.S. alone, a stagnant worker’s wage, a climate crisis … there are so many things we need to be concerned about, need to find solutions for, but for some people bigotry and hatred are the number one priority. I used to think humans could do better if only we tried, but in light of events of the past 7 or so years, I’m not so sure anymore.