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'Mississippi Burning' case, now closed, exposed KKK terror

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood tells reporters that the investigation into the infamous slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi is finally closed, 53 years almost to the day after the young men disappeared during "Freedom Summer," at a news conference Monday, June 20, 2016 in Jackson, Miss. The 1964 killings in Neshoba County sparked national outrage and helped spur passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They later became the subject of the movie "Mississippi Burning."
Image Credit: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
June 21, 2016 - 9:10 PM

JACKSON, Miss. - Federal and state authorities this week said they're ending investigation of the 1964 "Mississippi Burning" killings, one of the most infamous cases in the violent backlash to the civil rights movement.

Tuesday marked 52 years since Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were abducted and killed by Ku Klux Klansmen outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the civil rights workers' legacy is still honoured at annual memorial services.

During the first weeks after the crime, some Mississippi residents and officials dismissed the men's disappearance as a stunt designed to make the state look bad.

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded agency that sought to preserve segregation from 1956 until it was dismantled in 1977, sent its own investigator, A.L. Hopkins, to Philadelphia to monitor the FBI probe around the time the workers' charred station wagon was found near a swamp.

"There is still no physical evidence that these three civil rights workers have met with foul play other than the burned car which could very easily be part of a hoax," Hopkins wrote in a report.

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A timeline of events:

January 1964: Michael and Rita Schwerner, white New Yorkers in their early 20s, move to Meridian, Mississippi, as civil rights workers for the Congress of Racial Equality. They become friends with a James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Meridian who joins the CORE staff.

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Early 1964: Michael Schwerner's civil rights work is noticed by the Ku Klux Klan. "Indeed, the killing of Schwerner was a routine topic discussed at Klan meetings attended by both Meridian and Philadelphia (Mississippi) Klansmen, but Klan orthodoxy prevented such action unless authorized by the state Klan leader. Several weeks before the murders, state Klan leader Sam Bowers gave that authorization," the U.S. Justice Department said in a document released Monday.

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Mid-June 1964: Michael Schwerner goes to Oxford, Ohio, to help train Freedom Summer volunteers to work in Mississippi on black voter registration and education programs. Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old white New Yorker, returns to Mississippi with him June 20. Goodman sends his parents a postcard June 21 saying he arrived safely in Meridian: "The people in this city are wonderful and our reception was very good."

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June 21, 1964: Michael Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman go to Neshoba County to investigate the June 16 burning of a black church, Mt. Zion Methodist. After they leave, Neshoba County deputy Cecil Price stops them for speeding and holds them several hours in the county jail in Philadelphia. They are released after dark, and their station wagon is chased by carloads of Klansmen from Philadelphia and Meridian. They are shot to death, and their bodies are buried in an earthen dam.

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Summer 1964: The FBI sends hundreds of agents to Mississippi and names its investigation Mississippi Burning. Meanwhile, Freedom Summer volunteers work in several Mississippi communities.

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June 23, 1964: The civil rights workers' burned station wagon is found.

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July 2, 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination public accommodations, voter registration and other areas.

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Aug. 4, 1964: After receiving a tip, FBI agents find bodies of the three workers buried an earthen dam in Neshoba County.

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October 1967: A federal jury in Meridian convicts seven men of conspiracy to deny the civil rights in the abduction of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. An eighth man pleads guilty. The jury acquits eight other men and can't agree on whether to convict three others, including a Baptist preacher named Edgar Ray Killen, so a mistrial is called in those cases.

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2000: Price, the former deputy, talks to Mississippi attorney general's office investigators about the killings. He pleaded guilty in 1999 to filing false federal documents as a commercial driver's license examiner, receiving three years' probation as part of an agreement to co-operate in the civil rights probe. Price says he had stopped Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman after they were released from jail so they could be turned over to Klansmen, but he says he thought they would only be beaten.

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2001: Price dies after falling from heavy equipment while working in Neshoba County. "Rumours that Price's death was not accidental have never been confirmed," the new Justice Department report says.

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January 2005: A grand jury in Neshoba County indicts Edgar Ray Killen on three murder charges. It is the first time the state has brought charges in the case.

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June 21, 2005: Forty-one years to the day after the three civil rights workers are killed, a mixed-race jury in Neshoba County finds Killen guilty of three counts of manslaughter. Two days later, Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon sentences Killen to the maximum of 20 years for each count. Killen loses subsequent appeals and now, at age 91, remains in prison.

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2010 to 2016: The FBI reviews the Mississippi Burning case as part of its reopening of unsolved civil rights era cases.

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June 20, 2016: U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announce that the Mississippi Burning case is closed and no more charges will be brought unless new information becomes available.

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Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus covered the 2005 trial and sentencing of Edgar Ray Killen.

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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