James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman

Civil Rights Martyrs (1964)  
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In 1964 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other civil rights organizations called for a Freedom Summer, recruiting northern activists to join local civil rights workers in the South to protest segregation and register Black voters. In retaliation, the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi unleashed a wave of terror, burning crosses and destroying Black churches.  

On June 21, three activists in Neshoba County, James Chaney (21), a local African American civil rights worker, Mickey Schwerner (24), a CORE field secretary from New York, and Andrew Goodman (20), a college student from New York, were lynched by the KKK in one of the most notorious crimes of that era. While returning from the site of a church burning, they were arrested by a deputy sheriff and held in the county jail until nightfall, when they were delivered to a mob of Klansmen in a forest clearing outside Philadelphia. There they were beaten, shot, and buried in an earthen dam.  

Their disappearance was national news. The governor of Mississippi said it was a communist plot contrived to win sympathy. “The boys are in Cuba,” he said. But within a month, following an intensive investigation, the truth was revealed. A pathologist who examined James Chaney said he had never seen a body so shattered. Their deaths were a milestone on the hard road to freedom. In July, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following year the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.  

“[These brutal deaths are] an attack on the human brotherhood taught by all the great religions of mankind.” —Martin Luther King 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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