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Congressional honor sought for Freedom Summer martyrs James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner

11:06 PM, Feb 4, 2014   |    comments
Three civil rights workers, seen here in undated file photos, from left, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss., June 21, 1964. Schwerner and two others were later found buried in an earthen dam in rural Neshoba County. These photographs, released by the FBI in, 1964, were used in the search for the three men.
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JACKSON, Miss. (USA TODAY) -- A push is under way for official federal recognition of three slain civil rights workers, a half-century after members of the Ku Klux Klan executed them on a dark road in Mississippi.

For 44 days 50 years ago, FBI agents tromped through thickets, bogs and backwaters before finding the trio's bodies buried 15 feet beneath an earthen dam.

The June 21, 1964, murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were working to register blacks to vote as part of the Freedom Summer campaign, fueled support for the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In September, a Congressional Gold Medal was issued honoring four girls killed in the Klan's 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church. There is hope for a similar honor for the Mississippi trio. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the three deserve to be recognized. He has spoken with some of their family members, who he says support his effort. "With the 50th anniversary celebrations coming this summer, it would continue to signify this country's recognition and gratitude for the sacrifice they paid," said Thompson, who will be a co-sponsor of the measure to make it happen.

MORE: Civil Rights in America: Connections to a Movement

Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner became some of the most visible martyrs of the civil rights movement, and the FBI's "Missing" poster bearing their faces became an indelible image of the era.

News that the three had disappeared cast a pall over Freedom Summer workers who were training in Oxford, Ohio, said historian John Dittmer.

"Every day, (civil rights leader) Bob Moses would go up and write on the board, 'They are still missing,'" said Dittmer, who wrote the 1994 book Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. "It was absolutely a wake-up call for the volunteers."

They soon realized the three civil rights workers must be dead. "Everybody just assumed they would be the first of many," Dittmer said. "I'm always amazed more weren't killed.

It would be more than three years before anyone went on trial in the case.

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

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

Mississippi authorities reopened the case against Killen in 1999 after The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., published excerpts of an oral history interview with Bowers, who ordered the trio's killings. In that Mississippi Department of Archives and History interview, which was supposed to have remained sealed until his death, Bowers said he was "delighted to be convicted" and to have had Killen, the man he called "the main instigator" of the killings, "walk out of the courtroom a free man."

In 2000, reporter Jeffrey Goldberg drove to the home of Killen, who lives on the same road in Neshoba County where the three civil rights workers were slain. Goldberg, who has interviewed terrorists from Hamas and al-Qaeda, wasn't prepared when the 75-year-old Killen pointed his shotgun at him.

That happened after Goldberg said he mentioned to Killen that some local people were thinking about building a memorial to the slain rights workers.

He said Killen became enraged, saying, "A memorial? To who? The dead guys? Never! It'll never happen."

But the memorial did happen after a jury in 2005 convicted Killen of orchestrating the 1964 killings.

A stretch of Mississippi Highway 19 that runs from Philadelphia to Meridian now bears the names of the trio, as does a historical marker - both of which have been repeatedly vandalized.

"Because there is a marker, it acknowledges what happened to the world," said Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. "It's easier to destroy than build up, but we're committed to the hard work of building up."

In January, Killen, serving a 60-year sentence, celebrated his 89th birthday behind bars. He won't be eligible for release until 2029.

According to testimony and FBI statements, Killen coordinated the events that night, meeting with Klansmen and having them intercept, kill and bury the trio, whom he called "communists."

Killen told The Clarion-Ledger that he couldn't say the killers had done anything wrong.

Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, said the best honor Congress "could give to these men and all the others killed or injured in the struggle for voting rights and the dismantling of Jim Crow would be the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act and its aggressive enforcement." (Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the act that it said was outdated.)

Goodman's brother, David, said he thinks "all the other 900 volunteers in Freedom Summer were heroes, too."

Dittmer believes Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner are worthy of a Congressional Gold Medal.

"It honors not only their deaths, but the kind of work they were doing," he said. "It's a way of honoring the Mississippi movement through them."

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