It took 44 days after their murders for FBI agents to find the bodies of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney buried 15 feet beneath an earthen dam in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where the three civil rights workers were spending the summer of 1964 registering black voters. It took 41 years for the man who orchestrated and carried out the killings, Ku Klux Klan organizer Edgar Ray Killen, to be prosecuted on murder charges.
A half-century after their disappearance, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were posthumously awarded on Monday the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest honor that can be bestowed on civilians — for their contributions to civil rights.
“While they’re often remembered for how they died, we honor them today for how they lived, with the idealism and courage of youth,” President Barack Obama said in a ceremony honoring all 18 recipients. “James, Andrew, and Michael could not have known the impact they would have on the civil rights movement or on future generations. And here today, inspired by their sacrifice, we continue to fight for the ideals of equality and justice for which they gave their lives.”
Schwerner was a 24-year-old white New Yorker and Freedom Summer volunteer who had earned the ire of Klansmen because of his role in organizing a boycott of a store in Meridian, Mississippi, that had a large black clientele but employed no black workers. Chaney, 21, was an African-American Meridian native affiliated with the Congress for Racial Equality who was Schwerner’s friend and associate. The two recruited Goodman, a 20-year-old white student from Queens College in Manhattan, to accompany them to investigate the burning of a black church in Neshoba County.
As the three men left the church on June 21, 1964, police stopped their car and, citing them for speeding, took Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner to jail. Officers were then believed to have tipped off Klansmen about their whereabouts so that when they were released late at night, they were ambushed, chased to an isolated country road and shot. Chaney’s body was badly beaten and mutilated beyond recognition.
The men’s disappearance on the first day of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer attracted national headlines and the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who ordered FBI agents to launch a wide-ranging investigation. The high-profile case became known as "Mississippi Burning" and was one of the many iconic events of the civil rights movement that is believed to have awoken the nation’s conscience and cleared the way for critical legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to be passed.
"It took [the deaths of] two white men to wake up white America to what black America, in the South particularly, knew — that you could get murdered for your opinion or wanting to vote," David Goodman, Andrew Goodman’s younger brother who attended the White House ceremony, told the Associated Press.
In 1967, seven men were convicted on federal civil rights charges in the conspiracy to murder Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman by an all-white jury, but none served prison sentences more than six years. In 2005, largely thanks to the unearthing of new evidence by investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell, the state re-opened the investigation, ultimately trying and convicting Killen as the lead perpetrator. The former Baptist preacher is serving three consecutive 20-year prison terms.
“These medals honor more than just these three men,” Jerry Mitchell wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. “They honor everyone who took part and continues to take part in the civil rights movement.”
Roy Innis, chairman and CEO of the Congress of Racial Equality, said it was past time to recognize the achievements of workers like Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure civil rights for all.
“It’s better late than never,” he said. “It was obvious the importance of the work done by these three men and the courage they were able to conjure up to go to Mississippi in those days to seek to register black folks.”
Innis said that the events in Ferguson, Missouri and other instances of racial unrest prove that there are strides left to be made, and that everyone from white police officers to black teenagers deserves equal protection under the law.
“There’s much work to be done,” he said.