'Reckoning' with the Past Through Civil Rights Trials

Email a Friend
1964: An FBI poster seeking information as to the whereabouts of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Henry Schwerner, Civil Rights campaigners who went missing in Mississippi.
From and

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a civil rights project that brought hundreds of mostly-white college students from the North to volunteer in Mississippi to register black voters.

On June 21, 1964, a white civil rights worker named Mickey Schwerner and two Freedom Summer volunteers—Andrew Goodman, a white New Yorker; and James Chaney, a black Mississippian—went missing, in the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Rita, Schwerner's wife and fellow civil rights worker, refused sympathy, telling the press, "I personally suspect that if Mr. Chaney, who is a native Mississipipan Negro, had been alone, that this case, like so many others that had come before, would have gone completely unnoticed." 

The FBI found the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman 44 days later, on August 4, 1964. An all-white jury and judge convicted only a few of the men responsible for their murder, and none of the perpetrators served more than six years in prison. 

In the late 1990s and in the early years of this century, prosecutors throughout the South decided to re-open many civil rights-era murder cases—cases with victims that, because of the racist juries and judges that presided throughout the South, rarely saw equal justice under the law.

Along with the Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman case, prosecutors re-opened the Birmingham Church bombing case that killed four black girls in 1963, and the 1966 Natchez, Mississippi murder of Ben Chester White, a farmer killed by three white men who had hoped to lure Martin Luther King to the area, hoping to assassinate him.

These cases and the complex reasons for re-opening them are the subject of "Racial Reckoning," a new book by Renee Romano, a professor of history at Oberlin College.

As Romano tells The Takeaway's John Hockenberry, the murders took place within a Southern society that, at best, looked the other way when racist crimes were committed, and at worst, aided and abetted those crimes.

"What we see is that, while most of the crimes were committed by a small group of men, often members of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, they were able to continue in their terror campaign because they had the tacit and sometimes open support of politicians, of the police, of law enforcement, and juries that acquitted them, if they even went to trial," she says.

These present-day trials provide a specific type of narrative, she says, one conducive to a "redemptive" narrative in Southern politics. These trials aim to serve as proof that the Southern justice system has changed, that it's now colorblind and no restitution for past crimes that have led to present-day problems is needed. In sum, Romano says, these communities hoped that "by putting one old man in jail, we are free from this history."

But Romano tells Hockenberry that the historical evidence supports a different narrative, one in which Southern society was at least somewhat complicit in these civil rights-era crimes.