A broad-based group of citizens, business leaders and elected officials issued a call for justice last week in the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.
On Friday, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said he has asked the U.S. Justice Department for help, a move some believe could lead to new evidence in a case that has drawn worldwide attention and brought disrepute on this community.
The Philadelphia Coalition, a 30-member, multi-racial group of citizens, led the call for justice as part of plans to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the deaths.
In a 1 p.m., press conference at City Hall on Wednesday, the coalition called on the county District Attorney, the state Attorney General and the U. S. Department of Justice to “make every effort” to seek justice in the case.
Philadelphia Coalition co-chairmen Leroy Clemons, president of the NAACP, and Jim Prince, editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat, surrounded by other members, read excerpts from the resolution before a roomful of broadcast and print media.
“We deplore the possibility that history will record that the state of Mississippi, and this community in particular, did not make a good faith effort to do its duty,” the resolution said.
Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered here on June 21, 1964, by the Ku Klux Klan for their attempts to register blacks to vote.
The resolution adopted by the coalition reads:
“We state candidly and with deep regret that some of our own citizens, including local and state law enforcement officers, were involved in the planning and execution of these murders. We are also cognizant of the shameful involvement and interference of state government, including actions of the state Sovereignty Commission, in thwarting justice in this case.
“Finally, we wish to say to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved ones. And we are mindful of our responsibility as citizens to call on the authorities to make an effort to work for justice in this case.”
Philadelphia Mayor Rayburn Waddell read a resolution on behalf of the city calling on the “appropriate authorities to make every effort to seek justice in the case.”
The city’s resolution, passed on May 25 at a special meeting, issued regret “that history will record that the authorities did not make a good faith effort to do its duty” in 1964.
Plans were outlined for the commemoration set for Sunday, June 20 at 2 p.m., at the Neshoba County Coliseum.
The public is invited to attend the one-hour ceremony that will include a keynote address by former Gov. William F. Winter.
A memorial service will follow at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church at 4 p.m.
David Vowell, president of the Community Development Partnership, introduced a civil rights tourism initiative during the press conference.
The cover of a new brochure depicting Neshoba County’s African American and civil rights history was unveiled. The brochure, a project of the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Tourism Council, is entitled “Roots of Struggle, Reward of Sacrifice” and will be available in time for the June commemoration. (See story, page 1A.)
The Neshoba County Board of Supervisors is expected to pass a resolution similar to the city’s June 7, said James Young, the president.
Phillip Martin, chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians offered a supporting letter.
He said in the letter that the county had been associated with an act of infamy since the murders.
“Forty years ago, three young men who ignored the walls of separation between our communities were sacrificed to the fears and hatreds that long simmered throughout our country,” the statement said. “Forever since, Neshoba County has been associated with an act of infamy. However, those three that we lost live among us today. While it is right to mourn them, we honor them more when we celebrate their lives for the positive changes they provided to all of us.”
Clemons and Prince fielded questions from a horde of media.
Reporters questioned whether there was any new evidence since former Attorney General Mike Moore investigated the case. They also asked about possible defendants and they wanted to know if the coalition was just putting on a public relations show.
Clemons and Prince stressed that the coalition was not acting as prosecutors, only calling on the authorities to do the right thing.
“We’ve never had an effort like this from the community to stand up and call for justice,” Clemons said. “We’re going to ask the appropriate authorities to step forward and seek that justice. If the murderers are there we want them brought to trial and held accountable for what happened 40 years ago.”
Clemons said he felt there was evidence in the case that had not been explored.
The June 20 commemoration theme is Recognition, resolution, redemption: Uniting for justice.
The hour-long coliseum event is designed as a community-wide gathering free and open to the public.
Civil rights activist David Dennis is confirmed to lead a wreath-laying ceremony at Mt. Zion.
The Rev. Bishop Clay F. Lee will deliver a message at the memorial service.
He was senior minister of First United Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 1964 and was outspoken against the murders.
At Mt. Zion, family members of the slain men and others will also speak.
The service will be inside the church which can accommodate about 300 people. A live television feed from the church will be broadcast to the coliseum, officials said.
Chaney – a 21-year-old black man from Mississippi – and Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 24 – both white men from New York City – were part of the “Freedom Summer” program in Mississippi in which young civil rights workers organized voter education and registration campaigns.
The trio disappeared when they went to investigate a fire at Mt. Zion. Forty-four days later, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam. They had been beaten and shot.
Seven members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted of federal civil rights violations in the June 21, 1964, deaths and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three years to 10 years. The state never brought murder charges, and none of those convicted served more than six years.
Ben Chaney, the brother of James Chaney, will lead a 20-bus caravan embarking on a 20-stop tour beginning in New York City on June 9 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the slayings.
Chaney, who heads the James Earl Chaney Foundation, a civil rights group, said the trip would include the events in Philadelphia.