By Jerry Mitchell
Their faces stare from the FBI reward poster — Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
They became the best-known martyrs from the nation’s civil rights movement, yet less is known about them than the Klansmen who killed them.
This is their story.
OXFORD, Ohio — It is after midnight when Rita Schwerner hears the knock and the words, “Something’s happened.”
She trudges from her room at Western College for Women, where she, husband Mickey, his buddy, J.E., new friend, Andy, and other civil rights workers have been training for a summer project aimed at eliminating second-class citizenship for minorities.
She and Mickey married in 1962, living in New York City. Rita pursued a degree in English at Queens College, and Mickey worked with the poor on the city’s Lower East Side.
She found herself drawn to Mickey’s love for life, a social worker who bonded well with teenagers. When he wasn’t working, he played baseball and loved to watch W.C. Fields’ movies. He had graduated from Cornell University, where he had succeeded in integrating his college fraternity.
Both of them had taken part in protests, but the sight of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls inspired them to join the struggle.
When the couple applied to work for the Congress of Racial Equality, Mickey wrote, “I have an emotional need to offer my services in the South.”
Rita shared his passion and wrote, “My hope is to some day pass on to the children we may have a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men than that world which was willed to us.”
After Rita graduated in January 1964, the couple left in their VW Beetle for Mississippi, a place they called the “decisive battleground for America.”
They worked in Meridian. The telephone rang all hours with threats — so many Rita hated to answer because this caller might be like the last one who scared her, saying, “That Jew-boy is dead.”
Still, they remained optimistic. Mickey called the children “Mississippi’s best hope.”
Mickey, J.E. and Andy were supposed to stay with Rita, but when they learned of a church burning, they returned to Mississippi early.
The caller tells her Mickey and the others failed to return at 4 p.m. She checked the hospitals, jails, law enforcement and the Justice Department.
CANTON — A black man strolls into Pleasant Green Christ Holiness Church, no one suspecting he secretly works for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the state’s segregationist spy agency.
Agent X, hired through Day Detectives, listens as Clarence McCullough of Jackson encourages the 45 people to make the new protest a success.
Three young black men walk in wearing overalls with the CORE emblem. Agent X notes their new blue station wagon. After learning CORE owns the wagon, he jots down the license tag: H-25503.
The tag for the 1963 Ford Fairlane goes on a list of 136 cars “observed in vicinity of CORE and NAACP meetings in Canton.” The commission and the white Citizens’ Council circulate the tag numbers to law enforcement.
MERIDIAN — James Earl Chaney, J.E. to his friends, smiles at the sight of children entering the new Meridian Community Center.
He sees their eyes light up as they spy more than 10,000 books on the shelves. Rita reads to the children 10 and younger.
Ever since October, J.E. has been involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement.
At age 16, the principal suspended him from school for refusing to remove an NAACP button. A year later, a second conflict led to J.E.’s expulsion.
He tried to join the Army until his asthma disqualified him. He apprenticed with his father, a plasterer, but quit last year when they had a dispute.
In the movement, the 21-year-old J.E. has found a purpose. He and Mickey have become fast friends and go almost everywhere together.
Mickey sometimes calls him “Bear,” and he calls J.E.’s younger brother, Ben, “Cub.”
In April, Mickey and Rita ask CORE to hire J.E. because “he is in on all major decisions.”
MERIDIAN — A state lawmaker brings Mickey to the attention of Erle Johnston, executive director of the Sovereignty Commission: “He is a white male who very often wears the CORE overalls with the emblem. As of now he has not been identified, but an investigation will be made.”
Commission agent Andy Hopkins develops a dossier on Mickey and Rita, listing their address, phone number, past addresses, tag number for their 1959 Volkswagen and their driver’s license numbers. Hopkins reports Rita bought a Singer sewing machine. The couple’s phone is tapped.
“Their purpose,” Hopkins writes, “is evidently to contact local Negroes for the purpose of encouraging them to register to vote.”
The report describes them: “Michael Henry Schwerner ... white male ... brown hair, brown eyes, weight: 175 pounds, height: 5’ 8”,” and “Rita Schwerner ... white female ... green eyes, brown hair, weight: 95 pounds, height: 5’.”
Hopkins shares this with officers at the Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department and Meridian Police Department, many of whom belong to a group known as the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
NEW YORK CITY — At Queens College, Andy Goodman and other students hear about the “Mississippi Project.” They hear about the need for hundreds of students to travel south to register Negroes to vote, establish freedom schools, improve education, educate the white community about changes and conduct a “massive legal offensive against the official tyranny of the state.”
Allard Lowenstein, a professor from the University of North Carolina, says the project will use students and trained personnel, including lawyers, social workers, teachers, nurses and artists.
He tells students, “There is a great danger in coming to Mississippi.”
That warning fails to deter Andy, who goes home and asks his parents if he can go.
His mother, Carolyn, fears he could be beaten, but she signs the papers for him to go. Refusing to let him go would contradict all she’d taught him about the importance of being involved politically.
That influence has been showing in Andy’s life.
While working on a report on poverty at Walden High School, Andy traveled to West Virginia with his best friend, Ralph Engleman, where they talked with people in a town gone bust. Before they left, they discussed the poverty with state lawmakers.
After high school, Ralph is part of a Nashville sit-in in 1961 and joins protests in Birmingham two years later.
The sight of German shepherds attacking protesters in Birmingham incenses Andy, and Ralph’s stories of joining something bigger make him want to go South, too.
Their upbringing has been mostly in white society, but they feel some connection to black culture through music, listening to Miles Davis’ trumpet and Ray Charles’ contagious What’d I Say.
Over the past several years, the boyishly handsome Andy has been drawn to the theater, portraying Marc Antony in a high school version of Julius Caesar and performing in a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. More recently, he was in an off-Broadway production called The Chief Thing.
But Andy’s decision to major in anthropology at Queens College signifies a shift in his career plans.
In applying to work on the Mississippi Project, Andy writes he has “a good deal of experience with racial and religious prejudice.”
He hopes to work on voter registration this summer and spend next summer in Mexico, working with peasants.
He wants to start June 20. He leaves the end date blank.
PHILADELPHIA — A cross burns on the courthouse lawn, one of a dozen across Neshoba County.
Twenty days later, 64 crosses light up across Mississippi, signaling the Klan’s return.
A few days later, posters appear, giving 20 reasons to join the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, which believes in “total segregation of the races and the total destruction of communism ...
“We do not accept Jews, because they reject Christ, and ... are at the root-center of what we call ‘communism’ today. ... We do not accept Turks, Mongols, Tarters, Orientals, Negroes. ... The issue is clearly one of personal, physical SELF-DEFENSE or DEATH for the American Anglo-Saxons.”
MERIDIAN — J.E. and dozens of others wearing “Freedom Now” T-shirts picket outside Woolworth’s department store, encouraging Negro shoppers to go elsewhere.
When they protest again two days later, the police arrest everyone involved, including Mickey, who is sitting in a nearby car.
As protests continue, “Cub” joins them. On May 25, police take Mickey to the station, where Klansman Billy Birdsong says, “You must be that communist, Jew, nigger-lover they call ‘Goatee.’ ”
When Mickey gets home, he tells Rita the cops say they’re watching every step they make.
At a meeting, Delmar Dennis hears fellow Klansmen suggest a project for Mickey. “We’ve got to get Goatee,” one Klansman says. “I make a motion that we go and get him.”
“What do you mean by ‘go and get him?’ ” a second asks.
“I mean beat the hell out of him and the niggers,” a third replies.
Another Klansman agrees.
“Let’s vote on eliminating Goatee,” one Klansman says. “Amens” can be heard.
Their recruiter silences them: “Don’t you bother Goatee.”
Schwerner’s elimination has “already been approved by the state,” he says. “State” approval means Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers has endorsed Goatee’s execution.
The recruiter pulls a paper from his pocket. “This is his elimination order,” he says. “If you go over there now, you may mess things up.”
LONGDALE — Mickey and J.E. travel to Mount Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County.
They’ve made dozens of visits here, and members have been debating whether to start a freedom school.
After a long conversation, the church leaders, including Bud Cole, tell Mickey and J.E. they want such a school to help their children learn.
That same night in Jackson, night riders hurl bricks through the windows of the office of the Council of Federated Organizations. The next night, those bricks injure two preachers.
A week later, a threatening call comes from a man who says he’s from the KKK.
Another undercover informant, this one called Agent Y, reports back to the commission: “Fear of physical harm is an extreme concern at this time.”
RALEIGH — Inside Boykin Methodist Church, Bowers tells fellow Klansmen, “The events which will occur in Mississippi this summer may well determine the fate of Christian civilization for centuries to come.”
Bowers encourages them to join law enforcement officers in carrying out these goals:
“We must roll with the mass punch which they will deliver in the streets during the day, and we must counterattack the individual leaders at night. ... These attacks against these selected individual targets should, of course, be as severe as circumstances and conditions will permit.”
JACKSON — Agent X tells the Sovereignty Commission two carloads of civil rights workers left Mississippi last night for Oxford, Ohio.
“Other people were to leave this area today,” he says. “They expect to return to Mississippi ... a few days prior to” July 1.
He doesn’t know the locations of the freedom schools, but offers hints on finding out more: CORE keeps its trash in the corridor at the rear.
Two days later, he reports all students who are going to help with freedom schools across Mississippi will be trained first in Oxford, Ohio. A few days later, Agent X gets his orders to head there.
OXFORD, Ohio — Andy is among more than 250 volunteers pouring in for orientation at Western College for Women.
Before leaving New York City, he spoke with friends about his trip to Mississippi. They said he was brave but expressed concerns. Andy told them he’d be all right.
He welcomes this new experience. He meets other volunteers and veterans J.E. and Mickey, who encourage him to join their work in Meridian.
The next day, Bob Moses, who is leading the Freedom Summer project, tells volunteers, “Don’t come to Mississippi this summer to save the Mississippi Negro. Only come if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one. ... Maybe we’re not going to get very many people registered this summer. Maybe, even, we’re not going to get very many people into freedom schools. Maybe all we’re going to do is live through this summer. In Mississippi, that will be so much.”
LONGDALE — Seventy-five members of the Neshoba and Lauderdale County Klans gather at an empty gym.
Former Neshoba County Sheriff “Hop” Barnett says he saw guards at Mount Zion Church, three miles south. One Klansman says “Goatee” and the other civil rights workers are probably there.
The recruiter asks for volunteers. Klansmen pile into cars and descend on the church. The Neshoba Klan guards one exit, the Meridian Klan guards another.
Just after 9:30 p.m., the church’s board meeting adjourns. Klansmen attack as the eight adults and two children walk toward their cars in the parking lot.
They snatch church leader Bud Cole from his car and ask him where the guards were. “We don’t have guards in our church meeting,” he replies.
“You’re a damn liar,” the Klansman says. He and others beat and kick Cole, striking his jaw, head, neck and back and knocking him unconscious.
A man in a police uniform orders Cole’s wife, Beatrice, to walk down the dirt road with him. She asks if she can pray. A Klansman with a club says, “It’s too late to pray.”
She falls to her knees anyway: “Father, I stretch out my hand to thee, no other help I know. If thou withdraw thyself from me, O Lord, whither shall I go?”
The beating stops. The Klansmen leave, and she rushes to her husband, cradling his bloody head in her lap.
OXFORD, Ohio — Training continues.
Staffers drill volunteers on safety: Never go out after dark, never go out alone, watch for cops without badges.
They’re also trained in nonviolent techniques. Staffers and others play the angry mob, hitting and kicking students, who curl into fetal positions to absorb the blows.
Jackson lawyer R. Jess Brown tells students, “The white folk, the police, the county sheriff, the state police — they are all waiting for you. They are looking for you. They are ready; they are armed. They know some of your names and your descriptions even now, even before you get to Mississippi. They know you are coming, and they are ready.”
Afterward, Brown loads his luggage into a 1957 Cadillac belonging to Agent X, who drives him to the airport.
Before the night ends, Agent X tells the Sovereignty Commission the locations of each freedom school in the state and that “the first load of students leaving for Mississippi will leave on June 21.”
OXFORD, Ohio — Andy calls his mom to tell her he’s headed to Mississippi to help out his new friends, Mickey and J.E.
News has come of the burning of the Mount Zion church J.E. and Mickey had visited.
Mickey decides to head back, but Rita is asked to stay and assist with training.
The next morning, about 4 a.m., Mickey kisses Rita goodbye. He, J.E., Andy and fellow volunteer Louise Hermey load their suitcases into the 1963 blue Ford station wagon and speed into the darkness.
MERIDIAN — After catching a horror movie the night before, Andy gets up early enough to write and mail a postcard.
It’s one promise he made to his mother in exchange for his coming here — always sending her a note to let her know where he is:
“Dear Mom and Dad, I have arrived safely in Meridian, Mississippi. This is a wonderful town, and the weather is fine. I wish you were here. The people in this city are wonderful, and our reception was very good. All my love, Andy.”
Mickey tells Louise they’re heading off to investigate the church burning and that they’ll be back by 4 p.m.
At 10 a.m., they head for the church. When they arrive, only rubble remains. Bud Cole, who bears the marks of a severe beating, tells them the whole story.
To ensure they return by four, they head for Meridian.
PHILADELPHIA — They just pass the city limits sign when Deputy Cecil Price spots the license tag: H-25503.
Over the police radio, he blurts, “I’ve got a good one — George Raymond.” Price mistakes J.E., who is driving, for the CORE leader in Canton, where the commission first got the tag number.
Price stops and arrests the three and takes them to the Neshoba County Jail. J.E. is held for speeding, Mickey and Andy “for investigation regarding the rumor that the deputy had heard of the church burning.”
MERIDIAN — With the trio in jail, Klansmen set their plan in motion.
At Akin’s Mobile Homes, the recruiter tells Klansman James Jordan and others that civil rights workers are in jail and need their “asses tore up.” It needs to be done in a hurry, he says, because they are being held on minor charges.
At his suggestion, Klansmen round up more men, and Klansman Wayne Roberts gets six pairs of brown cloth gloves from a local store.
Their work done, they head north on Mississippi 19.
MERIDIAN — Mickey isn’t back by 4 or 4:15.
Volunteer Louise Hermey checks the clock, looks out the window and waits another 15 minutes.
She calls the COFO office in Jackson, where workers say Mickey might have had a flat tire: “Wait until 5, and then start calling around.”
When the clock reads 5, she begins to call. She dials area hospitals, jails and various numbers Mickey has in a small index file.
Outside, cars circle the community center.
About 5:30 p.m., Louise reaches the Neshoba County Jail, where the jailer insists Mickey and others aren’t there. She continues calling all night.
PHILADELPHIA — A car stops near the courthouse, and the recruiter inside doublechecks with Klansmen to make sure they have their guns. They do.
He gets out and checks the jail to see if the civil rights workers are still there. They are.
He talks with Klansmen in another car and tells one of them about the jailed trio: “We have a place to bury them, and a man to run the dozer to cover them up.”
He shows Klansmen a place to watch for the departing trio and asks them to drop him off at the funeral home because he’ll be the first one questioned.
After 10 p.m., Price releases the trio from jail: “See how quick y’all can get out of Neshoba County.”
They head south on Mississippi 19 in their station wagon. Three cars follow.
Spotting the pursuers, J.E. hits the gas, and a high-speed chase ensues down Mississippi 19. He swings a hard right onto a gravel road toward Union, and when Price flashes his lights, he pulls the wagon over.
Price walks over and says, “I thought you were going back to Meridian if we let you out of jail.”
He orders them into his squad car. While they’re switching vehicles, Price smacks J.E. with his blackjack.
Klansmen follow Price’s car down a gravel path known as Rock Cut Road, and they stop at a remote location.
Wayne Roberts jerks Mickey out of Price’s car and barks, “Are you that nigger-lover?”
“Sir, I know just how you feel,” Mickey replies.
Roberts shoves a .38-caliber pistol into Mickey’s chest and pulls the trigger. Mickey slumps into the ditch.
Roberts jerks Andy out, standing him next to his dead friend.
There are no words. Roberts places the gun against Andy’s chest and pulls the trigger. Andy falls.
Hearing the gunfire, James Jordan runs up and yells, “Save one for me.”
J.E. sees the fate awaiting him and bolts. When Klansmen see their prey running free, they open fire.
They apparently beat J.E. before finishing him off. Jordan announces, “You didn’t leave me nothing but a nigger, but at least I killed me a nigger.”
Klansmen transport the bodies to a dam, where they’re buried 15 feet deep in an earthen tomb.
Back in town, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey announces to the returning Klansmen, “I’ll kill anyone who talks, even if it was my own brother.”
Miles away, members of the mob drive the station wagon to the edge of a boggy creek and set fire to it. The dim glow lights the sky.
OXFORD, Ohio — Bob Moses kneels to hear the message from a staff member before standing.
The crowd hushes as he speaks: “Yesterday morning, three of our people left Meridian, Mississippi, to investigate a church burning in Neshoba County. They haven’t come back, and we haven’t heard any word from them.”
Rita explains her husband is missing along with J.E. and Andy. She shares the details she knows — their arrests, their release by Deputy Cecil Price.
She writes their names on a blackboard, followed by the words: “Neshoba County — disappeared.”
She asks volunteers to contact their congressmen.
The mood turns somber, and Jane Adams, one of hundreds of students, writes in huge letters: “FEAR.”
PHILADELPHIA — Commission agent Andy Hopkins arrives to talk with Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Price about news of beatings and a church burning.
Hopkins is puzzled no one reported the fire, but notes the sheriff previously shot two black men, making some Negroes “reluctant to report matters.”
The topic on everyone’s mouths today, though, is the three missing civil rights workers.
Rainey and Price tell Hopkins they have no idea where these people are.
“There is no reason to believe that the three subjects that have been reported missing have met with foul play,” Hopkins concludes, “however, this cannot be excluded as a possibility due to the present racial situation.”
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. James Eastland suggests to President Johnson the missing men are part of a publicity stunt.
“There’s not a Ku Klux Klan in that area. There’s not a Citizens’ Council in that area. There’s no organized white man in that area,” Eastland says. “Who could possibly harm them?”
PHILADELPHIA — Commission agent Andy Hopkins tramps through the edge of Bogue Chitto swamp and sees the burned-out shell of a station wagon.
“There was no evidence of bullet holes, blood stains or anything else that would indicate that the occupants had met with foul play,” he writes.
Hopkins reports the trio may have been spotted in Alabama or Louisiana. The wagon “could very easily be part of a hoax,” he says. “Everything indicates that the person that parked the car wanted it to be found soon.”
Hopkins passes word on to Gov. Paul B. Johnson, who talks with Sen. Eastland, who tells President Johnson he has new proof the disappearances are a hoax.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tells the president his agents are chasing down all leads, including that the trio might have burned the station wagon themselves “to create an incident that would inflame the situation.”
CINCINNATI — Rita arrives at the airport, anxious to return to Mississippi.
No one in the movement wanted her to travel there alone. The question was who would join her. The choice: Alabama native Bob Zellner, a tough movement veteran.
Inside the airport, they see Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, whom Rita admires for her compassion and strength in speaking up about police brutality.
As they speak, reporters recognize Rita, run up to her and tell her the trio’s station wagon had been found, almost destroyed by flames.
She stands speechless. Fannie Lou leads her to a nearby bench where they sit. Fannie Lou wraps her huge arms around Rita’s small frame. Tears trickle down their cheeks.
For all the times Rita had been told Mickey was dead, now she knows he really is.
PHILADELPHIA — Price tells Hopkins nothing was unusual about the trio’s arrests.
Although Price is a Klan member, Hopkins reports he can’t confirm rumors of “a KKK in Philadelphia. ...
“People in Philadelphia are extremely upset over this matter. Most of the businessmen and good citizens still believe that this is a hoax perpetrated by the missing parties.”
PHILADELPHIA — Rita comes with Zellner to see the burned-out station wagon and to hear from Sheriff Rainey what had happened.
The numbness she feels has obliterated any fear.
After evading armed men in pickups, the two meet Rainey, sitting in the back of his sheriff’s car. A top Highway Patrol official sits next to Rainey in the front.
Rita says she believes the sheriff knows where Mickey and the others are.
The patrol official says the sheriff knows nothing about what happened because he was at his wife’s hospital bedside the night of the disappearances. The official says Price released the trio from jail at 10 p.m. and who knew where they chose to go after that?
Rita shakes her head in disbelief. She feels the sheriff’s office played a role in Mickey’s death. Wasn’t it obvious the arrests were part of a setup?
Rainey rests his right arm on the back of his seat, saying he knows nothing about the missing men.
“You’re lying,” she shoots back. “I’m not going to give up until I find out what happened. And if you don’t want me to find out, you’ll have to kill me, too.”
Rainey becomes red-faced, clenching his fingers into a fist, telling her he doesn’t know why she’d assume he knew anything.
She starts to speak when the sheriff tells her to shut up.
“I’m not going to shut up,” Rita replies. “I’m not going to leave until you tell me what happened to my husband.”
She finally sees the familiar station wagon that looks anything but familiar. Set on blocks, the soot-covered vehicle has no tires, no windows and no seats.
She stands there, staring at the charred remains of what she and Mickey once traveled in on the small roads across Mississippi. The feeling of his certain death sweeps over her.
JACKSON — Gov. Johnson tells reporters for all he knows the missing men are in Cuba.
Standing next to Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Jackson Mayor Allen Thompson, he jokes, “Governor Wallace and I are the only two people who know where they are — and we’re not telling.”
A reporter looks up and spots Rita Schwerner: “That’s the missing civil rights worker’s wife.”
When Rita approaches, the governor and the others duck inside the governor’s mansion.
Away from the mansion, she talks to Allen Dulles, the president’s envoy, who extends his hand and offers his sympathy.
Fighting back tears, she says, “I don’t want sympathy. I want my husband back.”
WASHINGTON — Word comes to Rita while she’s working with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party — the bodies of Mickey, J.E. and Andy have been found.
On television, she sees the same images over and over: the earthen dam where the three were buried and Price among those carrying the bodies to a Jackson hospital.
The numbness she felt for 44 days gives way to sorrow, but the tears never come. She doesn’t want anyone to see her cry.
The Klan posts fliers all over the Neshoba County Fair: “Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were not civil-rights workers. They were Communist Revolutionaries, actively working to undermine and destroy Christian Civilization.”
WASHINGTON — Rita and the Chaney family want to bury J.E. and Mickey side by side in Mississippi, friends in death as they were in life.
But segregation laws in Mississippi keep that from happening. Mickey returns home to New York, and J.E. winds up in an all-black cemetery south of Meridian.
At the funeral in Meridian, Dave Dennis, who was supposed to travel that day with the trio but was sick, gets up to speak. CORE leaders asked him to deliver a calm speech, but when he sees Ben Chaney, “Cub,” in the audience, he feels he can no longer lie.
“What I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only here in the state of Mississippi, but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care,” he says. “I not only blame the people who pulled the trigger or did the beating or dug the hole with the shovel. I blame the people in Washington, D.C., and on down in the state of Mississippi.”
Grieve for little Ben, he says, but not J.E.
“He lived a fuller life than many of us will ever live,” Dennis says. “He’s got his freedom, and we’re still fighting for ours. I’m sick and tired of going to funerals of black men who have been murdered by white men.”
The veins jut out on his neck.
“Don’t just look at me and go back and tell folks you’ve been to a nice service. Your work is just beginning,” he says. “Those neighbors who were too afraid to come to this service, pick them up and take them down to register to vote! Stand up! Hold your heads up! Don’t bow down anymore! We want our freedom NOW!”
For Rita, what follows is a blur — Mickey’s funeral, Andy’s funeral, the news media crowding her and finally the arrests.
In 1967, 18 men go on trial in Meridian on federal charges of depriving Mickey and the others of their civil rights. She doesn’t attend, fearing the outcome will be the same as in 1955 when an all-white jury freed Emmett Till’s accused killers.
The jury convicts Bowers, Price and five others; acquits eight, including Sheriff Rainey; and deadlocks on three. Jurors deadlock 11-1 in favor of Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen’s guilt after a holdout says she could “never convict a preacher.”
In the decades that follow, the secrets of what happened the summer of ’64 slowly trickle out.
In 1989, Rita gets her first glimpse of Sovereignty Commission records that show the state’s role.
She learns about Agent X, whom civil rights workers — and the Sovereignty Commission’s Johnston — identify as R.L. Bolden, who went to prison in the late ’70s for scheming to defraud the government of job training funds.
Bolden denies he was Agent X, but admits he attended a civil rights meeting for Day Detectives. “I told (Ralph Day) the next day there wasn’t nothing that really went on except what was in the paper,” he said. “He then asked me to do something else. I said, ‘No, I’ll not do anything against anybody in my race.’ ”
In 1998, more secrets emerge. Sam Bowers tells an interviewer he was “quite delighted to be convicted (in the 1967 trial) and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man” — a reference to Killen.
Upon hearing this information, Rita and the families of J.E. and Andy urge Mississippi authorities to reopen the case. They do.
In 2005, authorities bring the first-ever murder charges in the case, arresting Killen, now 80, accusing him of being the Klan recruiter who helped carry out the killings.
This week, for the first time, Rita will come face to face with the man accused of helping kill Mickey and their friends, J.E. and Andy.
She will be joined by families who have shared in this tragedy: the mother of Andy, Carolyn Goodman and the brother of J.E., the one Mickey called “Cub.”
There will be other “family members,” too, those who worked with her in the civil rights movement.
For her, bringing the case into the courtroom isn’t about retribution or closure. It’s about acknowledging responsibility: “Individuals who plot and commit violent crimes are responsible for their actions, but a government which creates an atmosphere in which violence is encouraged is also responsible for the resulting horror.”
She hopes the trial, regardless of outcome, can start a conversation on race: “The responsibility goes beyond Mississippi — this is a discussion which we all need to engage in as we struggle to create a more just society in America.”