“You see, I know what’s gonna happen! I feel it deep in my heart! When they find the people who killed these guys in Neshoba County, you’ve got to come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury of their cousins, their aunts and their uncles. And I know what they’re going to say – not guilty.” (Dave Dennis, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE))
When famous political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville toured the new United States of America, he was impressed by the representative government set up by the Founders. At the same time, he ominously predicted, “If there ever are great revolutions there, they will be caused by the presence of the blacks upon American soil. That is to say, it will not be the equality of social conditions but rather their inequality which may give rise thereto.” De Tocqueville was prescient, because the longest battle fought in the history of the United States has been the Civil Rights Movement.
Today every American is taught about watershed moments in the history of minorities’ struggles for civil rights over the course of American history: the Civil War, Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Indeed, the use of the phrase “Civil Rights Movement” in America today almost invariably refers to the period of time from 1954-1964.
Even with those successes, tragedies continued to be pervasive, and one of the most notorious crimes was the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi in June 1964. Occurring less than two weeks before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the young volunteers were killed because they had come south to help register blacks to vote, a right they had been unfairly denied for over half a century thanks to Jim Crow.
Fortunately, as was often the case, the shocking nature of the crimes galvanized people and helped bring about the kinds of changes the murderers sought to prevent, but despite the national outrage generated by the disappearance of the volunteers, Mississippi showed no interest in prosecuting anyone. Ultimately, the federal investigation, dubbed “Mississippi Burning,” uncovered evidence of a large conspiracy that went all the way up to County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey, but without anyone’s cooperation, the government’s indictments could only bring up members of the conspiracy on minor charges. In the end, it would not be until 40 years after the murders that any of the conspirators would be tried for murder or manslaughter; that case, against 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, also marked the first time Mississippi tried anyone for anything related to the infamous crimes.
The Mississippi Burning Case: The History and Legacy of the Notorious Murders at the Height of the Civil Rights Movement chronicles the murderous conspiracy and the aftermath.