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Files Open to Public on Civil Rights Workers' Slayings

Victims were in Mississippi to look into church fire and register voters
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 27, 2021 10:45 AM CDT

(Newser) – Never-before-seen case files, photographs, and other records documenting the investigation into the infamous slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi are now open to the public for the first time, 57 years after their deaths. The 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County sparked national outrage and helped spur passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They later became the subject of the movie Mississippi Burning. The materials—dating from 1964 to 2007—were transferred to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History from the Mississippi attorney general’s office in 2019. The files, which include informant reports and witness testimonies, are now available for viewing by the public at William F. Winter Archives and History Building in Jackson, the AP reports. The three Freedom Summer workers, all in their 20s, had been investigating the burning of a black church near Philadelphia, Mississippi, when they disappeared in June 1964. They also were there to register voters.

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A deputy sheriff in Philadelphia had arrested them on a traffic charge, then released them after alerting a mob. Mississippi's governor claimed their disappearance was a hoax, and segregationist Sen. Jim Eastland told President Lyndon Johnson it was a "publicity stunt" before their bodies were dug up, found weeks later in an earthen dam. Nineteen men were indicted on federal charges in the 1967 case. Seven were convicted of violating the victims' civil rights. None served more than six years. In 2004, the Mississippi Attorney General’s office reopened the investigation. That led to the June 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, a 1960s Ku Klux Klan leader and Baptist minister, on manslaughter charges. Last week, for the 57th time, the annual memorial service for the three men was held at Historic Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Meridian, per WTOK. "If it hadn’t been for them coming here, checking out Mt. Zion, trying to get people here registered to vote, they would probably still be alive today," an organizer said. "So, we try to do something to remember them." (KKK member convicted in the case died in prison.)

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