Three Slain Civil Rights Workers to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

FBI reward poster for the three missing civil rights workers in 1964. (PHOTO CREDIT: FBI)
FBI reward poster for the three missing civil rights workers in 1964. (PHOTO CREDIT: FBI)

President Barack Obama announced 19 recipients Monday of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including three civil rights workers killed by the KKK in Mississippi in 1964.

“From activists who fought for change to artists who explored the furthest reaches of our imagination; from scientists who kept America on the cutting edge to public servants who help write new chapters in our American story, these citizens have made extraordinary contributions to our country and the world,” he said.

The medal will be awarded on Nov. 24 to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed on June 21, 1964, near Philadelphia, Miss.

Mississippi’s senators and a congressman have also been sponsoring legislation to get the trio Congressional Gold Medals.

“These men paid the ultimate sacrifice to bring justice and equality to every American,” said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. “Their courageous actions in the face of danger helped turn the course of history in the United States.”

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who is running for reelection this fall, said, “Bestowing the nation’s highest civilian award upon these slain civil rights workers would signify the gratitude of a nation that today is more free and just because of their brave work and sacrifice.”

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, where Goodman and Schwerner were from, is also sponsoring the bill.

“Voting is one of the most sacred rights we have as Americans and it is important for us to reflect on our past and honor those who have fought to ensure every citizen has access to that basic freedom,” she said.

“James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were unsung heroes who sacrificed their lives in the fight for freedom, justice and equality for all. This recognition is long overdue, and I will push to make sure that these brave souls are awarded this honor and that the Gold Medal can stand as a memorial to commemorate their lives and fearlessness.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, where college students and other volunteers joined the push to enable African Americans to vote. That push was met with violence, resulting in arrests, beatings and church bombings.

On the first day of that summer, the Ku Klux Klan killed Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. For 44 days, FBI agents tromped through thickets, bogs and backwaters before finding the trio’s bodies buried 15 feet beneath an earthen dam.

Their June 21, 1964, killings fueled support for the civil rights movement and helped transform President Lyndon Johnson into a strong supporter, ending one speech with the words of the grass-roots anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

In October 1967, a jury in Meridian heard the case against 18 men, who faced federal conspiracy charges.

The jury convicted seven, including Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, but reputed Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen walked free after they deadlocked 11-1 in favor of his guilt. Jurors said the lone holdout told them she could “never convict a preacher.”

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Jerry Mitchell, (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger