Honor voting rights martyrs with deeds
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King holds photo of three civil rights martyrs. Courtesy the Andrew Goodman Foundation

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. The names of the three civil rights martyrs still ring like a bell four decades after they disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964. Their deaths, together with the violence inflicted on civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., played a huge role in galvanizing the fight to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Their deaths also inspired the battle by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated at the national Democratic Party Convention in the summer of 1964.

James Earl Chaney was a native of Meridian, Miss. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had traveled from New York City to join in the Freedom Summer project helping African Americans register to vote. All were in their twenties.

Their mutilated bodies were found in an earthen dam months later. The gruesome multiple murder of the three young martyrs is dramatized in the 1988 film, “Mississippi Burning.”

And in William Bradford Huie’s book, Three Lives for Mississippi, a journalist’s fact-filled story of people that fate brought together in a tragic confrontation. Huie tells the history of each young man and studies the personalities of the killers. He reveals not only the harrowing events in this heinous case but also the prejudice of ordinary citizens who allowed murder to serve as their defense of prejudice. He helps us know the young martyrs closely and introduces us to their killers and to the hatred and suspicion that led inexorably to murder.

In 1967, 18 Klansmen were indicted for violating the civil rights of the three. Seven Klansmen were convicted and given slap-on-the-wrist sentences of three to 10 years. Eight were acquitted.

The trial of Edgar Ray Killen, sawmill operator and Baptist preacher, ended in a hung jury in 1967. One of the 12 jurors said she would “never vote to convict a preacher.”

Killen was arrested again this past January, the first Klansman to face murder charges for the triple murder. The attorney general of Mississippi reopened the case after a Mississippi newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, published excerpts of a secret interview with Sam Bowers. Bowers, former Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the KKK, is now serving a life sentence for the 1966 murder of civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer Sr. Bowers identified Killen as the mastermind in the killing of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

Killen’s trial is scheduled for April 18.

Many martyrs for civil rights

Many died in the struggle to end racist segregation, among them four young girls in the Klan’s 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit homemaker, was murdered in Alabama during the Selma voting rights struggle. Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was shot in the back outside his home in Meridian. And Dahmer Sr. died in the firebombing of his home in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Yet the brutal slaying of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner galvanized the struggle for justice in a special way, proving that the struggle to end racist segregation involved people of all races and religions. The Klan would target anyone, white or Black, Christian or Jewish, who attempted to register African Americans to vote. The three became heroes for a younger generation of civil rights workers, Black and white, in the South as well as the North.

Chaney’s brother remembers

Ben Chaney was 11 years old when his brother died. “I remember him as a pretty cool brother,” Chaney told the World in a telephone interview from his New York law office. “He took me to the barbershop for haircuts. He bought me my first Little League football uniform. He was a prankster. But he was also a very quiet and serious person who people listened to with respect.”

James Chaney “would be very disappointed by conditions in Mississippi today,” his brother said. “In many parts of the state, including Neshoba County where he died, time has stood still. Look at Jackson. It has a Black mayor and a growing Black middle class. But at the same time, the level of poverty has grown. Even though the appearances have changed, the power itself has not changed.”

Many white Republican politicians in Mississippi, including Gov. Haley Barbour, are members of the so-called Conservative Citizens Council, a sanitized version of the racist White Citizens Council. A shadowy, secretive outfit, it gained some notoriety when Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was exposed as having delivered a white supremacist speech to a CCC convention.

Barbour tries to face-lift Mississippi, giving hypocritical lip service to a “new” Mississippi where racist violence is best forgotten. By contrast, Ben Chaney is determined to preserve the memory of his brother’s sacrifice by carrying on the struggle for voting rights. These rights were threatened by the voter suppression tactics of the Bush-Cheney campaign. Ben Chaney has set up the James Earl Chaney Foundation, a nonpartisan organization to conduct voter registration campaigns and defend voting rights.

Voting rights in 2005

“I have received so many e-mails from voters in Florida and Ohio complaining that there were not enough voting machines and they had to wait hours in line to cast their ballots last November,” Chaney told the World. “There’s no excuse for having so few machines in Black polling places when plenty of machines are provided in white Republican precincts. They should have taken care of that early on. It adds up to a violation of voting rights.

“We’re so concerned about validating the right to vote in places all around the world but what about the denial of voting rights here at home? Those in power have created a mechanism to ensure that they stay in power, that power does not change hands. We must fight for an amendment to ensure a paper printout from these voting machines so the accuracy of the vote can be ensured.”

Ben Chaney pointed out that “identity theft” of people’s credit card, Social Security, and driver’s license numbers is rampant and has received widespread media coverage. “If they can steal my identity, they can also steal my vote,” he said.

The Chaney Foundation organized a “Freedom Summer 2004 for Justice” bus trip that began in New York City and looped through the South, including Mississippi, registering thousands of mostly young first-time voters. “The response was just great,” he said. “We took young adults to parts of the South and let them do exactly what my brother James, Andrew, and Michael were doing in 1964 — going out and registering people to vote, talking to them about the importance of registering to vote and getting to the voting place on Election Day. A majority of the young people we reached told us that no one had ever talked to them about the importance of voting.”

Enthusiasm ran so high that already they are planning another “Freedom Summer 2005 for Justice” next summer. It will begin as Freedom Summer 1964 began, with a training session at the University of Ohio in Miami, Ohio. Participants will learn about the history of the civil rights movement and the battle for the Voting Rights Act. “We will focus on those parts of the Voting Rights Act that are up for renewal in 2007,” Chaney said. They will travel to Cincinnati to register people to vote. Then they will head for the Mississippi Delta, visiting the sites of past struggles and continuing the effort to register people to vote.

“The best and most fulfilling way to honor the memory of my brother and Goodman and Schwerner is in action,” Chaney added. “This is hands on, going into poor Black communities, building coalitions with local groups. It makes me feel that the future is in good hands because of the energy and commitment of these young people.”

“I knew my son didn’t die in vain”

Soon after Andrew Goodman died, Robert and Carolyn Goodman established the Andrew Goodman Foundation in memory of their son. Andrew is described on the foundation’s website as a gifted clarinetist, an actor in off-Broadway productions, and a teacher of theater arts to underprivileged children in New York City. From his early youth, he was an activist in the peace and civil rights movements.

Robert Goodman died several years ago but Carolyn Goodman, now 89, carries on the foundation’s work. The foundation has produced a video titled, “Hidden Heroes: Youth Activism Today,” to promote the activism for equality and peace that Andrew gave his life to.

“It’s important to get the word out that people are being firm, not breaking down or giving in to this man [Killen],” Carolyn Goodman said. “I was in Mississippi myself. Everyone I spoke to told me that the Klan is still alive and many people are victims of the Klan. I think it is a problem all over the country, not just in the South.”

Goodman cited strong evidence that Neshoba County law enforcement officers were involved in the triple murder. She said, “They released [the three young men] from jail that night knowing they were targeted for murder.”

Goodman is not surprised that it took so long to bring the killers to justice. “I knew it would take time to work it through,” she said. “But you sow seeds and they sprout and grow. I knew my son did not die in vain. Now it is happening. So many people now are saying to themselves, ‘We’re not going to give in to those who would destroy democracy.’ There are too many good people in this world who want peace and justice. They will not be denied.

“We have to stand up for the right to vote. It doesn’t matter what color you are,” Goodman said. “That’s what my son was killed for, fighting for the right of African Americans to vote. I’m 89 and I’m still standing up to defend that right.”

“Bush will only be around for four years. There have been people like him throughout our history. It hurts to have people in power like (Attorney General Alberto) Gonzales and Bush. I don’t think of Bush as being the top man. He’s a puppet controlled by others who are pulling the strings.”

She added, “We lost a great man just recently, Ossie Davis. He was out there on the front lines. Ossie Davis should have been president. I’m looking at a picture on the wall of my office, of a tall Black man, Paul Robeson. He was a friend of mine. He lived with us in our house for a while. He was a wonderful, great human being. He didn’t die.

He lives on in our hearts and minds. He was a hero. What do heroes do? They stand for peace and justice. They say, ‘I can take it!’ and they lead people. They continue leading even after they die.”

By their example, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner are leading people today, four decades after they died.

(See related story below.)

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Thousands expected for Selma bridge crossing jubilee

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was beaten nearly to death by Alabama troopers when he and hundreds of other voting rights protesters marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965.

Lewis was then a field organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the brutality spurred Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act five months later. He will return Sunday, March 5, to lead a re-enactment of that bridge crossing, the seventh time he has led the annual “Bridge Crossing Jubilee.”

This time he will be joined by a host of celebrities at least 40 members of the U.S. Congress, including leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the largest contingent of lawmakers ever. Instead of clubbing the marchers, the police will provide a polite escort.

But voting rights activists charge that voter suppression and denial of voting rights is still rampant although it takes subtler forms, such as ChoicePoint Corp. purging voter lists at the request of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act lapse in 2007. Already the voting rights movement is mobilizing pressure on Congress to extend those measures. They include:

• The section requiring three states, Texas, New Mexico, and California, to provide bilingual ballots and bilingual voting instruction materials.

• The section requiring the Justice Department to provide election monitors in states with a history of voter disenfranchisement.

• The section requiring states with that kind of history to prove that changes in their election procedures will not negatively impact Black, Latino, or other minority voters. (Enforcement of this section is badly needed in Texas, where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has rammed through redistricting to grab five more House seats for the Republicans. Black and Latino voters were the big losers in this scam.)

The movement is also pressing demands for changes in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) enacted after the stolen 2000 election. One proposal would require a “verifiable paper trail” for all electronic voting machines, to curb the theft of votes. Another proposal would make Election Day a national holiday.

There are growing demands that the vote be restored to ex-felons, disproportionately African American. Others are calling for the abolition of the Electoral College and the direct election of the president. Also under discussion are reforms that would end the “winner take all” system in favor of proportional representation in which seats in legislatures are apportioned on the basis of the share of votes received by a given party.



Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.