Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

History lost: Mississippi burned again

By Robin Washington
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
The 1964 FBI bulletin for the missing civil rights students Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
The 1964 FBI bulletin for the missing civil rights students Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robin Washington says 50 years after the murders in Mississippi, history repeats itself
  • Three young men were killed in 1964 while trying to secure voting rights for all
  • Today, the Supreme Court and conservative statehouses are turning back the clock

Editor's note: Robin Washington is a research scholar for the San Francisco-based think tank Be'chol Lashon. He lives in Duluth, Minnesota. He was previously the editor of the Duluth News Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @robinbirk. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- In Neshoba County, Mississippi, on the night of June 21-22, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing. Their bodies would be discovered in an earthen dam 44 days later as the ultimate payment for their efforts to secure voting rights for all Americans.

Yet 50 years later, it's as if it barely happened.

A right-leaning Supreme Court has decimated the Voting Rights Act, the very law inspired by the deaths of those three young men. Their rulings have given the OK to conservative legislatures and governors nostalgic for the Old South to reinstitute roadblocks to voting.

What happened to learning from history?

You might remember this case was the basis of the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning," which starred Gene Hackman as a crusading FBI agent bent on getting to the bottom of killings by the Ku Klux Klan, though it's hardly historically accurate.

Robin Washington
Robin Washington

"The movie I love to hate," Steve Schwerner, Michael's brother, told me from New York last week. "It makes out the FBI as the hero (yet) the Civil Rights Movement felt that the FBI was the enemy and was working with local law enforcement (who were Klan members) much more than the movement."

Chaney's sister, Julia Moss-Chaney, also decried the portrayal of a "hero FBI."

"Tell me about it," she said from her home in Willingboro, New Jersey. "If all of that had been invested, it wouldn't have taken 44 days" to find the bodies.

Watch 'The Sixties'

Experience the long march from segregation to Civil Rights on this week's episode of "The Sixties: A Long March to Freedom," Thursday night at 9 p.m. on CNN.

Or even longer if two of the missing men had not been white. Schwerner and Goodman were white and Jewish from New York. Chaney was a black Mississippian. In a bitter irony of what the three men stood for, it was the notion of white lives being more valuable than black that helped bring their deaths to national attention.

"It's no secret that had my brother not been with Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, we would not have known anything of what had happened to him. It's a painful reality, but it is common knowledge," Moss-Chaney said.

Schwerner agreed.

"We wouldn't be talking right now if it was only Jim Chaney or if it was three Mississippi black people. There were many people that had been killed in Mississippi beforehand, and with the exception of Medgar Evers never made The New York Times, never made NBC News. Nobody ever mentioned their names."

Rep. John Lewis: 'Get in good trouble'
Atlanta opens the doors of history
GPS: How the Civil Rights Act was Passed

Michael Schwerner had arrived in Mississippi earlier that spring. Teaming up with Chaney, he immediately raised the ire of the Ku Klux Klan.

"He was targeted from the moment he arrived," Moss-Chaney said. "You know the nature of hate: 'Let me first make sure I degrade you to the degree in my mind that you are less than human.' There's nothing less than human for a white man to be than a 'n----- lover.' Once that's established, then anything goes."

Goodman joined them on June 20, 1964. They were riding in a blue Ford station wagon the next day when a deputy sheriff stopped them.

"It is sad, heartbreakingly sad, that Andy's first day in Mississippi was the last day of his life," Moss-Chaney said, her voice going quiet.

What were they doing that so outraged the good old boys? Aside from just being black and white together, their major work was voter registration, at the time barred to black people unless they could answer impossible questions such as how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.

An FBI investigation did lead to the federal conviction of seven conspirators in the case. Mississippi didn't get around to prosecuting the case until more than 40 years later, when Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen was convicted and sentenced to three maximum 20-year terms for the murders.

The killings fueled passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the next year. Yet much of that progress was turned back in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It followed that in April with a ruling against affirmative action efforts in higher education.

Part of the justices' argument was that federal actions to assure equality at the ballot box have been successful, so they're not needed anymore. But that's like saying a car rolls well with wheels, so you can take them off. And proof that it doesn't work is that as soon as those enforcement measures were lifted, voter restrictions returned in the form of less-than-logical Voter ID laws.

One of those allows prospective voters to present gun registration cards as acceptable proof of eligibility, but not student IDs, Attorney General Eric Holder said in December. Is that any less ridiculous or subjectively discriminatory than asking voters to count bubbles in a bar of soap?

Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long and may bend toward justice, but it also makes a couple of back flips along the way.

"We've certainly made some progress," Schwerner said of where the country is now, a half century after the murders. "On a scale of 1 to 10, if you started at 1 when Brown vs. Board of Education came down in 1954, we might be at 4 now."

For that, three men gave their lives.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT