Fifty-five years ago this June, three civil-rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were slain in a brutal act that shocked the nation.
The bold attack on them was adjudged even more shocking when it was discovered that local law-enforcement officers participated in the murders.
“Freedom Summer,” a three-month effort by the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to register Southern blacks to vote, had drawn the three young men—two white and one African-American—to Neshoba County.
The FBI’s all-out search for the conspirators who killed the three young men was depicted in the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”
Long story made short, the FBI investigated the crime and most of the perpetrators—but not all—were identified and prosecuted. National outrage over these murders helped persuade Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1864.
I was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, 20 years before the murders. The farm where the bodies of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were unearthed is just a few miles from my family’s farm.
In my youth, I was raised on a cotton farm in the Pearl Valley community, a farming district surrounding Pearl Valley Baptist Church, our place of worship. My mother died giving birth to me, and my father—the most decent man I have ever known—raised me, assisted heavily, by African-American ladies whose husbands worked our farm.
My father and I viewed our farm employees as family, and my dad never evinced a racist comment or sentiment in his life—simply because he was not a racist. The KKK never entered or touched our lives.
But we farm boys, of course, heard about some strange group of hooded night-riders. I can recall keeping a folded knife in my pocket out of fear I might be accosted by a loopy character wearing a sheet. But little did we know that the Philadelphia Police Department and the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office were full of sinister, murderous “Klukers.”
In 1964, as a man of 20, I had left Mississippi by the time the murders occurred. My father had died. With our cotton farm in my rearview mirror, the Marine Corps saved my life—while almost concurrently killing me in Vietnam.
After I accomplished my military duty and was educated at Kansas State University, I was accepted in 1971 by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for a special-agent post, a job I had wanted as a young boy. After all, the FBI had cleaned up my home town, forevermore. I felt it an honor to give something back to such a noble organization.
Speaking of the FBI, and the murders of the three civil-rights workers, the following account was written several years ago for an internal FBI newsletter by retired Special Agent Richard Vivian—the agent who discovered the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
Fifty-five years after the crimes, here is Vivian’s letter. I believe you will find it both remarkable and 100 percent believable:
In June 1964, I was assigned to the Columbus Georgia Resident Agency when I was instructed by the Atlanta Special Agent-in-Charge to pick up another Agent, Declan Hughes, who was assigned to the Macon, GA RA and proceed to Philadelphia, MS. They we were to investigate the burning of a negro (that’s the word used then) church. (Mt. Zion Church in Longdale, MS, a rural community near Philadelphia.)
After arriving in Philadelphia, we rented a motel room, but remained only a night or two because of threats. For the duration of the investigation, we stayed in Meridian, MS and drove back and forth each day. We interviewed numerous black people, but didn’t get anywhere for about 1-2 weeks. There we were, two white guys trying to get info in probably the #1 racially-prejudiced town in the South. We slowly gained the trust of potential witnesses and had identified 10-15 of the Klansmen involved in the burning of the church.
While we were investigating the church burning, the three civil rights workers were reported missing. FBIHQ initiated an investigation of the disappearance, and the church burning case was combined with it. We naturally assumed that the Klansmen we identified (as being involved in the church burning) were involved in the disappearance of the three civil rights workers. That later proved to be true.
Many Agents were brought from other divisions to work the case. (maybe 20-30 Agents, I don’t recall exactly). Numerous searches were conducted to locate the civil rights workers, but nothing was found. Eventually, a source divulged where the civil rights workers bodies were buried.
According to the source, they were buried in the core of an earthen dam being built on the property of Glenn Burridge.
A search warrant was obtained and earth digging equipment was brought in to excavate the dam. As the dam was excavated, I was in the pit, which had reached a depth of 15-20 feet and nothing was found. Since the bodies didn’t seem to be in this part of the dam, it was decided the equipment would moved to a different spot.
I was the only one in the pit, watching for any evidence of the three bodies. At this moment, an audible voice right next to me, on my right side, spoke plainly, DON’T MOVE! DIG A LITTLE DEEPER! Note: I was alone in the pit.
I yelled up topside, “Don’t move ... Dig a little deeper!”
After a couple more feet, the odor of decaying bodies was evident, and a piece of body was seen. We then proceeded to dig all the bodies out by hand.
Of course, nowhere in the report will one find out how the bodies were actually found. The Lord wanted this case solved, and the spirit spoke to me in the pit. Had they moved the digging equipment, the case would never have been solved.
I hope this adds something to the story and while there may be skeptics, I swear and would do so under oath, that what happened in the pit is true.