Remembering the 1964 Murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner

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By Donna Lewis Johnson

For Blacks of a certain age, the May 25 knee-on-neck killing of George Floyd by a White police officer evokes that awful time in the summer of 1964 when young civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi by a Klan mob. Their dead bodies lay hidden in a mud dam for 44 days.

Patricia Towner, now 67, was in the front room of her grandparents’ shotgun-style house in rural Neshoba County on August 4, 1964 when TV news anchorman Walter Cronkite reported that the bodies of the three men had finally been found, concluding an exhaustive search by federal agents and others. The dam where the bodies were buried was located on a cattle farm near the house that Towner lived in with her grandparents, aunt and uncle.

Three civil rights workers slain in 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. (Courtesy Photo)

“We felt disbelief, but not surprise,” Towner recalled. “That was the way the Klan put fear into you. They were saying: ‘See what happened to them. Same thing can happen to you.’”

Chaney was from Meridian, Mississippi. He was Black. Goodman and Schwerner were White from New York. Each in his twenties, the men had come to Neshoba County to register Black voters as part of the month-long Freedom Summer voter drive organized by an alliance of civil rights organizations. At the time, less than seven percent of Mississippi’s eligible Black voters were registered, mainly because of voter suppression tactics aimed at keeping Blacks disenfranchised.  

Within hours after speaking at a burned Black church in Neshoba County, the biracial trio went missing.  

The act of terror began when Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price arrested Chaney on a speeding charge and held Goodman and Schwerner for questioning, later releasing all three men after Chaney posted a $20 bond. The traveling companions got back on the road to head out of town. Price followed them and was soon joined by a swarm of White supremacists affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan hate group. The mob ambushed, abducted and murdered the three men. 

Schwerner and Goodman were shot once in the heart. Chaney was severely beaten, mutilated, and shot three times. 

On October 20, 1967, seven white men, including Price, were convicted and sentenced in federal court for conspiring to kill Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Many other racists had been implicated, but either escaped charges or were eventually acquitted. Six years was the most time served by any single offender. 

Racism in elections, the very issue that brought the ill-fated civil rights workers to Neshoba County 56 years ago, persists in Mississippi. During a 2018 U.S. Senate runoff election in the state, Republican candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith joked with supporters about attending a “public hanging.” Hyde-Smith went on to win the election against Democrat Mike Espy, the first Black U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and a former member of Congress. 

“Statements like Hyde-Smith’s make you not want to go to the polls,” said Costello Towner, Patricia Towner’s husband. “I still go. I vote for my candidate.”

Also a native Mississippian, Mr. Towner, 71, left the state when he was 19 to move to Detroit for far better wages working at a Ford Motor Company plant. 

Towner voted for the first time in November 1973 in the election that made Coleman Young the first Black mayor of Detroit.

Patricia Towner, who had migrated to Chicago to attend nursing school, joined Costello in Detroit upon graduation, beginning her career as a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital. The Towners returned to Mississippi circa 1976 to raise their two young sons near family and away from Detroit’s rising crime. 

Today’s groundswell for social justice makes the Towners smile. 

“I’m proud of the Black Lives Matter protesters,” Mr. Towner beamed. “They’re changing the status quo.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Towner added, “with their cell phones.”  

Mrs. Towner learned about the discovery of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner’s slain bodies on a small, used black-and-white television that her grandparents had bought for $35. 

Technology has changed remarkably over the years, maybe faster than the times. But the revolution is still being televised.