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Johnson tapes offer glimpse into Civil Rights history

johnson February 14, 1997
Web posted at: 9:15 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Alan Duke

(CNN) -- Hollywood depicted the event in the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning."

But the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library recently has released tapes and transcripts of phone conversations about the 1964 abduction and murder of three civil rights activists. The result is real-life insight into the tragedy and a glimpse into American history.

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  • The recordings were made in June 1964, a crucial time for the Civil Rights movement. President Johnson was just a few votes shy in the Senate of passing landmark legislation that would ensure the right to vote among African-Americans and prohibit segregation in public places.

    At the time, racial tensions across the South were high, and hundreds of college students from the North were boarding buses for Mississippi to register black voters.

    Three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Earl Chaney, disappeared June 21 from Philadelphia, Mississippi.

    civil rights workers

    The next day, attorney General Robert Kennedy urged President Johnson to become personally involved. Johnson called Mississippi's senior senator James Eastland about the disappearance.

    "Jim we've got three kids missing down there. What can I do about it?" Johnson asked.

    "Well, I don't know," Eastland said. "I don't believe there's three missing."icon (266K/24 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)


    An hour and a half later, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called and spoke with Johnson. "I think you can tell the parents that the car has been found and that it was burned and that the agents are proceeding with intensive investigation," Hoover told the president. icon (434K/39 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    Two hours later, Johnson called the parents of Schwerner and Goodman, offering some hope that their sons were still alive.

    "The FBI got in the car and think that there's reasons to believe that no people were in the car, because they've been unable to find any evidence of that and there are indications that there were tracks leading from the car back to the highway."

    "That's wonderful news," Goodman said.

    The fate of the three men was uncertain, but their disappearance provided the final impetus needed for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to pass.


    "This was a very important weapon for Johnson in showing senators who were undecided about Civil Rights that violence would escalate in the South if a bill were not passed. It was something that was very important to him in getting that bill through," said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

    The bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were found five weeks later, buried in a mud dam.

    On the day they disappeared, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman had been arrested and put in jail in Philadelphia. During the five hours they were incarcerated, Klansmen and deputies made an arrangement to kidnap and kill them as soon as they were released.

    Eventually, 19 men, including the county sheriff and a deputy, were convicted of federal conspiracy charges in connection with the murders.


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