Decades later, Mississippi is still burning

JACKSON, Miss. — In 1964, the brutal slayings of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, rocked the country. Their deaths cast a spotlight on the horrific violence and injustice already known by those who lived in the state of Mississippi.

In 1970, 18 members of Mississippi’s Ku Klux Klan were federally indicted for violating Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s civil rights. Of the 18 men indicted, only seven were found guilty, and none of those seven spent more than six years in prison. Despite the heinousness of the crime, the state of Mississippi chose not to pursue any murder charges.

What Mississippi did choose to do was create the very weapon that enabled the murders to happen. In 1956, the Legislature had created the State Sovereignty Commission “to prevent encroachment upon the rights of this and other states by the federal government.”

The encroachments they were speaking of were the rights of equal protection under the law for African Americans – more specifically, the right of  African-Americans to vote free of barriers and intimidation and the right to an equal and integrated education.

To achieve its goals, the Sovereignty Commission and its spies and agents told the Klansmen what road the civil rights trio would be traveling and when. In these gruesome slayings and others, a man may have pulled the trigger, but it was the state of Mississippi that provided the gun.

After nearly 30 years of indifference and silence, the case was reopened. Still, it took six years before the instigator of the murderous plot. Edgar Ray Killen, was charged with three counts of murder: however, he was only convicted of three counts of manslaughter.

Other known conspirators were alive at that time, but no others were indicted, and the state’s collusion in the murders was never even considered.

Now, in 2016 Mississippi has chosen to close the case.

There will be no further investigation into the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The reason given for this closing is that it is unlikely that further investigation would result in any other prosecutions.

But at least one known conspirator is still around today and has yet to be held accountable. That conspirator is the state of Mississippi.

The tragic and senseless murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were made more famous with the motion picture “Mississippi Burning.” Although many civil rights veterans disagreed with the depictions of the hero, it was an appropriate title then and it has not lost its relevance today.

Because Mississippi still burns.

The fire did not begin in 1964. The sparks were born much earlier, and the embers have smoldered much longer than that. Even in 1817, at Mississippi’s birth, the fire was there, and its flames have constantly been stoked with racial hatred, inequities, and terrorism.

In the recent past, this fire has been fueled by burning crosses and firebombs, all under the Confederate symbol that still exists on the state flag today. While today’s accelerants do not light up the night, they still serve the same purposes of evil.

Mississippi still burns.

The current flames of hate still burn brightly as Mississippi, in defiance of reason and even in defiance of the sister states who have in the past stood proudly in the well of racism, Mississippi chooses to keep a symbol of racial hatred on its flag.

Mississippi chooses to honor those who fought against the United States and fought for the right to own other human beings. Mississippi chooses to underfund education while teaching a, quite literally, white-washed history, according to which the white Citizens Councils weren’t “all that bad” and in which Confederate history doesn’t involve the mention of slavery or treats it as “no big deal.”

Hatred still sears. Intolerance still singes. Discrimination still scalds. Racism still scorches, but now indifference feeds these flames and the blaze grows higher.

Indifference keeps the Confederate battle emblem on Mississippi’s flag flying over this state. Indifference has closed the case on the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner slayings. Indifference has caused over 50 years of inaction and injustice for the dozens, maybe hundreds of others who died by racist violence. Eight bodies of African-American men were found while the FBI searched for Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, but where was their investigation? Where was the national outrage over their deaths? Where was their justice?

The State of Mississippi bears as much blood on its hands as any of the men who killed Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, and the named and nameless others who fell victim to racist violence. Mississippi has closed this case, but the larger case will never be closed until the state is held accountable for its part in this crime.

Until that day, Mississippi will still burn.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and the many, many others whose names are not known, whose faces are not pictured, whose full justice is still denied deserve more than just a nod of acknowledgment and a rueful shaking of a head. Their cases should not be closed, and their causes must not be forgotten because when we do that we fan the flames of this Mississippi burning.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


Derrick Johnson
Derrick Johnson

Derrick Johnson serves as President and CEO of the NAACP, a title he has held since October of 2017. President Johnson formerly served as vice chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors, as well as state president for the Mississippi State Conference NAACP.