Mississippi 1964: Civil Rights and Unrest, Part Two

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In the second part of his remembrance prompted by the Mississippi trial of Edgar Ray Killen, commentator Walter Cronkite recalls the slaying of three civil rights workers in 1964. He tells how it unfolded amid a struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam War.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We continue now with the story of the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 as remembered by commentator and former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.

(Soundbite of "CBS Evening News")

WALTER CRONKITE: CBS News correspondent Nelson Benton made a trip to the Mississippi town today, and here's his report on this civil rights visitor.

Benton reported the details and the names of the workers who would soon become familiar to the world.

(Soundbite of "CBS Evening News")

Mr. NELSON BENTON (Reporter): Mt. Zion Church burned under mysterious circumstances last week, and the three missing civil rights workers left Meridian Sunday to take a look at the ruins. It was somewhere in the vicinity of the church that James Chaney was arrested on a traffic violation by a sheriff's deputy. Chaney is a Negro. Chaney and his white companions, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman, were taken to the Neshoba County Jail, where Chaney was booked on the traffic charge; the others, held for investigation. They were released after Chaney paid a $20 fine.

CRONKITE: What none of us knew then was how deeply the FBI already had flooded Mississippi and infiltrated local institutions. It was an anonymous telephone tip to FBI agents in Meridian that had led to the discovery of the car. But Hoover cautioned Johnson not to be too specific about the bureau's presence in the area.

(Soundbite of recording of telephone call)

Mr. J. EDGAR HOOVER (Director, FBI): I wouldn't give the details of the number of agents that we've got. You said it was substantially augmented, and I think that's entirely sufficient.

CRONKITE: Meanwhile in Washington, the parents of 20...

(Soundbite of "CBS Evening News")

CRONKITE: ...the parents of 20-year-old Andy Goodman--that's Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goodman of New York--and Mickey Schwerner's father--he's also from New York--saw President Johnson today. Mrs. Goodman had said earlier she was extremely frightened because, in her words, `Mississippi is a strange land where anything could happen.'

A strange land indeed. For the next month, while state police trolled remote swamps for bodies, undercover FBI agents quietly burrowed deeper into the local shadows. Forty-four days after the story broke, an informer who has never been identified came forward. The search for the bodies now focused on a farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Bulldozers moved in and began gouging chunks of earth from a dried-up dam on the land.

On Tuesday evening, August 4th, Lyndon Johnson found himself in a rare confluence of historic timing. Two unrelated events were about to collide literally at the same hour. A minor incident two days before in the Tonkin Gulf off Vietnam had escalated to a major crisis by Tuesday. That night, as the president was planning the air strikes that would take America full-bore into the Vietnam War, he received this phone call from deputy FBI Director Cartha DeLoach.

(Soundbite of recording of telephone call)

Mr. CARTHA DeLOACH (Deputy Director, FBI): Mr. Hoover wanted me to call you, sir, immediately and tell you that the FBI has found three bodies six miles southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi. A search party of agents has turned the bodies just about 15 minutes ago while they were digging in the woods and underbrush several hundred yards off Route 21 in that area. We have not identified them as yet as the three missing men, but we have every reason to believe that they are the three missing men.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: When are you gonna make an announcement, huh?

Mr. DeLOACH: Within 10 minutes, sir, if it's all right with you.

Pres. JOHNSON: OK. If you can hold it about 15 minutes, I think we ought to notify these families.

Mr. DeLOACH: All right, sir. Shall I wait till I hear...

Pres. JOHNSON: Yeah, I'll get right back to you.

Mr. DeLOACH: Very good, sir.

CRONKITE: Johnson immediately called an assistant, Lee White.

(Soundbite of recording of telephone call)

Pres. JOHNSON: So call the families and tell them that it'll be announced in the next 10 or 15 minutes and we'll, as soon as we get proper identification, let 'em know further.

Mr. LEE WHITE (Assistant): All right, I'll call the three of them right now.

Pres. JOHNSON: Yeah.

Mr. WHITE: All right.

Pres. JOHNSON: Tell them I asked you to.

Mr. WHITE: I will, Mr. President.

CRONKITE: Four months later, the FBI arrested 21 suspects, including the county sheriff and his deputy. But Mississippi never indicted or tried them. That was left to a federal grand jury acting under a conspiracy law passed during Reconstruction. The defendants were celebrated as local heroes for three years. In October of 1967, seven of the 21 were convicted and sentenced to terms from three to 10 years.

If the leniency of the punishment shocked the country, its severity angered Mississippians, proving how separate the two societies still were.

(Soundbite of "CBS Evening News")

Unidentified Man: ...with Harry Reasoner substituting for Walter Cronkite.

Mr. HARRY REASONER: Good evening. A federal jury in Meridian today voted the first convictions in Mississippi's post-Reconstruction history of white men in a major civil rights crime. The jury found seven guilty of conspiring to violate the rights of three young men in 1964: Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. The jury also acquitted eight defendants and could not reach a verdict for three others.

CRONKITE: Those of us who reported civil rights stories then often felt uneasy with the protocols of objectivity. It seemed dishonest to pretend that a Ku Klux Klan leader had the civic or moral equivalence of Rosa Parks or Medgar Evers. But CBS management reminded us often that that was not our judgment to make. In retrospect, the summer of '64 was paradoxical and prophetic. The paradox was that two weeks after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill, blacks suddenly rioted in Northern cities. Harlem was first, and the prophet was to be Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, whose flamboyance often concealed his shrewdness. He warned that racial change would come in two phases and that the South would be the easy one.

There were other political signposts that summer. At the Democratic convention in August, virtually the entire Southern leadership of the Senate and a third of its governors found they had previous commitments and did not attend. In Atlanta, Lester Maddox passed out ax handles and invoked the Ten Commandments as a political manifesto as he closed his fried-chicken restaurant rather than accommodate black customers. The murders of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman in 1964 and the Selma march the following spring would be the last important rallying acts of civil rights activism before the country began turning its attention to Vietnam. But what Adam Clayton Powell foresaw and what Lester Maddox invoked would persist in ways few imagined. For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite.

SIEGEL: And to recap, testimony began today in the trial of the man who's accused of orchestrating that Klan attack that killed James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner more than 40 years ago. The defendant, Edgar Ray Killen, is now 80 years old. He was removed from the courtroom to be treated for high blood pressure, and today's testimony was cut short.

You can hear more of Walter Cronkite's essays at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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