Fifty-two years after three civil rights workers were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, authorities have officially closed the “Mississippi Burning” case.
“There's nothing else that can be done,” Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said in a press conference covered by Jerry Mitchell at The Clarion-Ledger on Monday. “I am convinced that during the last 52 years, investigators have done everything possible under the law to find those responsible and hold them accountable; however, we have determined that there is no likelihood of any additional convictions. Absent any new information presented to the FBI or my office, this case will be closed.”
The case started in the summer of 1964, when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were working to register African-American voters as part of the Freedom Summer campaign. On June 21, the three men traveled to investigate the burning of a church in Neshoba County, as History.com reports.
The Neshoba County deputy sheriff, Cecil Price, also a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, pulled their car over on a speeding charge and made the trio spend hours in jail in the town of Philadelphia.
Investigators later learned that when the men were released from jail, Price tipped off his fellow Klansmen, and then drove to apprehend the activists' car, himself. Price would eventually catch up to the three men and pull them over. Klansmen then took the activists to an unmarked road where they were beaten and then shot at close range.
The FBI called the investigation, MIBURN (for "Mississippi Burning") after discovering the men's charred car two days after they went missing, according to a release by the agency. The FBI would find the men's bodies several weeks after that. Though an informant identified the 19 assailants, they were not charged by the State of Mississippi. The U.S. Justice Department, however, found a way to charge the assailants for violating the activists' civil rights. But in 1967, an all-white jury and segregationist judge acquitted nine of the defendants, deadlocked on three, and found seven guilty, including Price. The men were sentenced to terms between three and nine years in jail.
In June, 2005, on the 41 anniversary of the three murders, Edgar Ray Killen, the Klan leader who orchestrated the attack, was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter. In 2010, Hood reopened the case. While two other men involved in the murders are still alive, Hood does not believe there is enough evidence to indict them.
“Tragically for the people of Mississippi, and for our nation, many murders took place over so many years, in which people of color were targeted, and those who attempted to support them became the victims of brutality as well, all deprived of basic civil rights of citizens,” Schwerner’s widow, Rita Bender tells Mitchell. She urges Mississippi officials “to face up to the past and for the people of Mississippi and all of our country to find the resolve to move forward.”
Not everyone thinks its time to move forward. “This case is about Americans murdering Americans because they want to be Americans. This case will never be closed until it heals the wounds that have divided our country,” Goodman’s older brother David tells Juleyka Lantigua-Williams at The Atlantic. “You can’t move past a wound while it’s open, even if you cover it up with a bandage.”
In 2008, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Crimes Act, giving the FBI $10 million per year for 10 years to investigate civil-rights-era cold cases, like the Mississippi case. But Janis McDonald, Syracuse law professor and co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative accuses the Justice Department of sitting on hundreds of cases of activists being killed police, the KKK and racist individuals. “This doesn’t have anybody’s priority,” she tells Lantigua-Williams. “They’re just not doing the kind of full investigations that the act promised these families they would.”
In 2014, President Obama posthumously awarded Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.