The Freedom Summer Murders
is a 2016 true crime book by Don Mitchell. It tells the story of three civil rights workers, who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, as well as the eventual arrest and trial of one of the murderers forty years later. Several others were convicted of minor crimes related to the case, suggesting that the murder was premeditated by a conspiracy of many people.
The three victims, two African Americans and one white person – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer, are members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), though James is based in Mississippi while the other two men are guests from New York. Mitchell spends the early part of the book detailing the childhoods and formative years of each man, including information on why he decided to join the civil rights movement.
The three spend the summer encouraging African Americans in Neshoba County, Mississippi, to register to vote. They know that this area of the country is dangerous for civil rights workers, but they decide to go anyway, fully knowing that they are in danger of being arrested, harassed, or even killed.
The White Knights, an offshoot of the KKK, set fire to a church where the civil rights workers had recently conducted a meeting. On June 21, James, Andrew, and Michael travel to the site of the destroyed church to investigate. On the way back to CORE headquarters, they are arrested for speeding and taken to jail. The CORE office contacts the authorities about the missing men, but cannot get any information.
While the civil rights workers are in prison, nine men, all of whom are residents of Neshoba County, hatch a conspiracy to abduct and kill them. Among them is the Neshoba County Sheriff, Lawrence A. Rainey. Rainey later denies being aware of the conspiracy, though Mitchell provides evidence that he ignored offenses committed against the workers and was aware of several other racially motivated murders in his jurisdiction about which he did nothing. The other men implicated in the conspiracy include police officers, local business owners, and Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist preacher who is the only person ultimately convicted of murder in the crime.
James, Andrew, and Michael remain in jail for several weeks awaiting trial. This gives the White Knights an opportunity to meet and make a plan. On July 7, the men are released from jail and told to leave town. The deputy sheriff who lets them go is the same one who arrested them for speeding. James, Andrew, and Michael drive out of town and are immediately pursued by several vehicles full of men. The men force them to stop on a deserted road and murder them. After killing them, the men take the bodies to a nearby farm and bury them.
After the three men are reported missing, the FBI launches an investigation. While searching for the civil rights workers, several other bodies of murdered African Americans are also discovered. Eventually, a reward is offered for information in the case, and Highway Patrolman Maynard King comes forward to reveal the location of the bodies.
In late November, the FBI presents a case against twenty-one men involved in the conspiracy. However, the Mississippi government refuses to charge any of them with murder, instead, charging them with conspiracy to deprive the victims of their rights. This is an important distinction because conspiracy can be tried at the local level, while murder must be tried at the state level. However, a US Commissioner assigned to the case throws out the charges, saying that they are based on hearsay.
In 1967, a federal trial is conducted, but a racist judge stacks the jury with people who would be sympathetic to an acquittal. Finally, seven defendants are convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to between three and seven years in prison. Sheriff Rainey is among the men acquitted, though strong evidence is presented that he was the mastermind behind the conspiracy.
Finally, forty years later, a high school history teacher and some of his students collect all the evidence from the case into a documentary, pressuring law enforcement to reopen the case. In 2005, the case is finally reopened and Killen is indicted on murder charges. He is finally convicted on three counts of manslaughter. Following Killen’s conviction, the US Justice Department states that there will be no more investigations into the case.
In the afterward, Mitchell discusses the effect that the murders had on the civil rights movement. The outrage surrounding the crime was used to help gain support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Malcolm X used the crime as evidence that white law enforcement was not concerned with black lives.