Mississippi 1964: Civil Rights and Unrest

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As the trial of Edgar Ray Killen begins, commentator Walter Cronkite recalls the story of the slaying of three civil rights workers in 1964. Cronkite saw the drama unfold amid two struggles: one for civil rights and another against the Vietnam War.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner came during a summer crowded with historic change. Riots in Birmingham, Alabama, and the march on Washington the previous year moved Congress to fight enforced segregation in the South. Former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite recalls that on June 19th, 1964, the Senate passed the first important civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.

WALTER CRONKITE:

The Senate action came just before 8 PM on a Friday. It still might have been our top story on Monday. But late Sunday night, something happened in the swamps of Mississippi.

(Soundbite of vintage newscast)

CRONKITE: Good evening. Three young civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi on Sunday night near the central Mississippi town of Philadelphia, about 50 miles northeast of Jackson. The last report on the trio came from Philadelphia police, who said they were picked up for speeding on Sunday, fined $20, then released.

Within hours after the Senate had passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and five other civil rights workers in Ohio piled into a blue Ford station wagon and set out for Meridian, Mississippi. They might as well have traveled in a time machine. They were about to enter a deeply isolated civilization that hadn't changed its mind in 200 years. War, time and technology had changed everything else, but the mind of the South remained immovable on its most fundamental social cornerstone, race.

They knew that for almost a hundred years, the shadow government of the rural South had been the Ku Klux Klan. It never stood for election, levied taxes or legislated laws, but it was the invisible power to which all those who did had to account. They knew they were at the mercy of a system that thrived in a clandestine terror buffered by physical isolation. The fact that it was an open secret hardly mattered. The South was private, not imperial. It offered little advice to outsiders and tolerated none in return. It wanted to be left alone.

This is why you had to live in the South to understand how deeply separate it was, as I had when my family moved to Texas when I was 10. I quickly learned that the Civil War was the war between the states and that the Confederate flag could still inspire patriotic fervor. Now in the 1960s, the time capsule that had been the Old South and had been left alone for so long was being pried open like a rusty tomb. During that week in June, the country would be shocked by the skeletons it began to find.

At 4:05 PM that Tuesday, Lyndon Johnson picked up his phone in the Oval Office and heard this from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

(Soundbite of recording of telephone call)

Mr. J. EDGAR HOOVER (Director, FBI): Mr. President...

President LYNDON JOHNSON: Yeah?

Mr. HOOVER: ...I wanted to let you know we have found the car.

Pres. JOHNSON: Yeah.

Mr. HOOVER: Now this is not known. Nobody knows this at all. Now whether there are any bodies in the car, we won't know until we can get into the car ourselves. We've got agents, of course, on the ground, and as soon as we get definite word, I'll, of course, get word to you. But I did want you to know that apparently what's happened, these men have been killed.

Pres. JOHNSON: Well, now what would make you think they've been killed?

Mr. HOOVER: Because of the fact that it is the same car that they were in in Philadelphia, Mississippi. On the other hand, they may have been taken out and killed on the outside.

Pres. JOHNSON: Or maybe kidnapped and locked up.

Mr. HOOVER: Well, I would doubt whether those people down there would even give them that much of a break.

CRONKITE: Hoover's instincts were better than the president's. Two hours later, on the "CBS Evening News," I reported that the Mississippi Highway Patrol late in the day...

(Soundbite of "CBS Evening News")

CRONKITE: ...Highway Patrol late in the day came across the first solid clue to the possible fate of three young civil rights workers who disappeared in Mississippi three days ago. It was the station wagon in which the Negro youth and his two white companions were riding when they vanished on Sunday night. The auto, burned and charred, was found near the central Mississippi town of Philadelphia, about 50 miles northeast of Jackson.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: How word of the murders reached the White House and more of the story from Walter Cronkite when we continue.

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