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Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite Church

Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite Church was a congregation of Choctaw Mennonites in Neshoba County that suffered three bombings between September 1964 and December 1966.  The bombings took place against the backdrop of the Freedom Summer murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in June 1964. There were never any arrests in the church bombings, which apparently were not a priority for local law enforcement, which included men implicated in the Freedom Summer murders.

For more detailed information, see this article “Revisiting a Mennonite Church Bombing, 50 Years Later”

Goodman, Andrew

Andrew Goodman (1943-1964) was a participant in the Freedom Summer movement of 1964.  He originally got his start in the civil rights movement after graduating from Walden School.  He was from the Upper West Side of New York; however, he left New York to train and improve his activism skills at Western College for Women.  At age 20, in June 1964 he took his talents down to Meridian, Mississippi, to help register blacks to vote.  This was a danger for all involved due to community and government members strongly opposing granting this right to blacks.  Furthermore, some of those who were opposed to granting blacks the right to vote and equality were willing to stop anyone involved in the movement by any means necessary.  Through the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, spies were paid to give information about civil rights organizing.  The Commission was especially interested in out of state activists. 

Less than 24 hours after Goodman arrived in Meridian, he went with fellow activists James Chaney and Michael Schwerner to investigate a church burning and violent beatings of church membersin Neshoba County. As they were preparing to leave the area and return to Meridian, the three men were pulled over by local police for a supposed speeding violation. They were taken to a jail in Philadelphia MS but were released later that evening, only to be chased down and murdered by klan members, who had been alerted by local law enforcement about the young men’s release and route back to Meridian. The murderers buried the bodies in an earthen dam in Neshoba County, where they were discovered on August 4, after a federal investigation.

See also “The Murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner”

source: andrewgoodman.org/who-we-are/about-andy/

Chaney, James

James Chaney (1943-1964) was an activist during the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for voting rights for African Americans. He joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1963 and was part of a campaign for voter registration and desegregation known as the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. During this time, he was based in his hometown of Meridian MS, where he worked with voter rights activist Michael Schwerner. In June 1964, Ku Klux Klan members burned Mt Zion United Methodist Church in Neshoba County MS. On June 21, Chaney and Schwerner, along with “Freedom Summer” volunteer Andrew Goodman, who had been in Mississippi for less than 24 hours, went to investigate the church burning and violent beatings of church members. After leaving the church that day, the three men were stopped by police. They were taken to a jail in Philadelphia MS but were released later that evening, only to be chased down and murdered by klan members, who had been alerted by local law enforcement about the young men’s release and route back to Meridian. The murderers buried the bodies in an earthen dam in Neshoba County, where they were discovered on August 4, after a federal investigation.

See also “The Murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner”

Sources:

“James Earl Chaney.” CORE, www.core-online.org/History/chaney.htm.

“Murder in Mississippi.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/freedomsummer-murder/.

Bender, Rita Schwerner

Rita and Bill Bender photographed in Oxford MS in 2004 with students in the Winter Institute’s Summer Youth Institute

Rita Schwerner Bender was born in 1942 and is considered a key player and civil rights activist during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Rita Schwerner and her husband Michael Schwerner were native New Yorkers who moved to Meridian, Mississippi, in January of 1964. They were tasked to work as field staff for the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), assigned to the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Rita and Michael’s primary work was in the creation a community center that focused on black voter registration.

On June 21, 1964 Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman went missing after their investigation of a black church bombing in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Almost forty days later, the bodies of the three men were found buried near a dam. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, in collusion with local law enforcement, were responsible for these murders. Michael Schwerner’s and Andrew Goodman’s deaths drew attention on a national level solely because of his identity as a white man. Rita Schwerner acknowledged this in her statement to the media, claiming that the world would have taken little notice if her husband were a black man.

Bender continued her efforts to improve voting issues with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party following the death of her husband. She eventually earned a law degree and worked as a public defender for the American Civil Liberties Union. She returned to Mississippi in 2005 to testify in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, who was found guilty of manslaughter for orchestrating the murders of her husband, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.

Rita and her second husband, Bill Bender, are attorneys in Seattle, Washington, and remain deeply involved in civil rights and racial justice work.

Click here for a paper Rita Bender presented at the University of Mississippi on October 25, 2005

See also “The Murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner”

Sources:

Hannah-Jones, N. (July 22, 2014). A Brutal Loss, but an Enduring Conviction. Retrieved from: https://www.propublica.org/article/a-brutal-loss-but-an-enduring-conviction

Testimony of Rita L. Schwerner (1964). In Mississippi Black Paper: Fifty-Seven Negro and White Citizens’ Testimony of Police Brutality, the Breakdown of Law and Order and the Corruption of Justice in Mississippi (New York Random House, 1965), pp. 59-60,61, 62-63.

Jackson, Luther

On Oct. 30, 1959, Luther Jackson was murdered by then Philadelphia, Mississippi policeman Lawrence Rainey. Rainey was not prosecuted. He went on to become Neshoba County Sheriff and was accused of playing a role in the cover up of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Jackson’s was one of many racially motivated murders investigated by Medgar Evers. As quoted in Local People, Myrlie Evers explained that Medgar Evers “investigated, filed complaints, literally dragged reporters to the scenes of the crimes, fought back with press releases, seeking always to spread the word beyond the state, involve the federal gov’t., bring help from the outside.” Read more on this page from the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ): and in Local People.

Nichols, Ajatha: Oral History

Ajatha Nichols grew up in a family of four in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Throughout her education she experienced integration, the murders of the civil rights workers, and the gaining of voting rights for black Americans then expresses her feelings toward the events. Ajatha explains how she got involved in the civil rights movement through her mother. She explains how her mother made her take part in the integration of a white school her senior year. Although she says she did not witness any violence Nichols divulges that the experience was still hard and different. She also talks about a program she participated in that gave her new perspective on race relations. Ajatha Nichols then talks about Philadelphia’s present racial situation, highlighting the shortcomings of the education system. She also speaks on she and her husbands dealings with white co-workers. Nichols says that it is important to be able to adjust to changes while still being true to yourself.

Ajatha Nichols’ oral history, part one:

Neshoba County – Interview with Ajatha Nichols 01 from Winter Institute on Vimeo.

Part one of her oral history can also be viewed here.

The Philadelphia Coalition

The Philadelphia Coalition is a multiracial group of concerned local citizens that was formed around a call for justice in the case of the three civil rights workers–James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner–who were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in 1964.

In 1994, members of the Philadelphia Coalition held a press conference to present a Call for Justice in Neshoba County. These are clips from the press conference as well as clips of Edgar Ray Killen being escorted to and from the courthouse for the trial:

These videos can also be viewed here.

After the Call for Justice for Edgar Ray Killen, members of the coalition and concerned citizens voice their opinions, feelings, and appreciation for the Philadelphia Coalition and the change it has brought to Neshoba County:

These videos can also be viewed here.

In 2005, the Philadelphia Coalition was honored by the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation with the C.C. Bryant award for community organizing.

The full lecture and awards presentation can be found here.

Source:

“The Philadelphia Coalition. Recognition, Resolution, Redemption: Uniting for Justice.” www.neshobajustice.com.

The Murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner

On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County. The trio had come here to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in the Longdale Community off Highway 16 East. The night the church was burned, parishioners were beaten, some severely. The murders of Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were part of a plot hatched by the Lauderdale County unit of the Ku Klux Klan and carried out with members of the Neshoba County unit.

The civil rights workers were part of a broader national movement that hoped to begin a voter registration drive in the area, part of the Mississippi Summer Project that became known as Freedom Summer. A coalition of civil rights organizations known as COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) conceived of a project in the state with massive numbers of student volunteers who would converge on the state to register black voters and to conduct “freedom schools,”which would offer curriculum of black history and arts to children throughout the state.

Chaney, a plasterer, had grown up in Meridian in nearby Lauderdale County, and even as a young student had been interested in civil rights work. Schwerner, a Jewish New Yorker, came south to Meridian to set up the COFO office because he believed he could help prevent the spread of hate that had resulted in the Holocaust, an event that had taken the lives of his family members. Chaney volunteered at the Meridian office, and the two young men began to make visits to Neshoba County searching for residents to sponsor voter registration drives and freedom schools. After contacting members of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church and Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, as well as other individuals, Chaney and Schwerner made plans for a COFO project in the area.

Tensions were mounting that summer as some of Mississippi’s segregationist newspapers propagated the idea of a “pending invasion”of civil rights workers. The state was a powder keg, as the recently-reformed Ku Klux Klan increasingly made its presence known, and fears were heightened among both blacks and whites. In April 1964, the Klan burned about a dozen crosses in Neshoba County. The Neshoba Democrat condemned the cross burnings and the coercion and intimidation employed by the Klan. The Ku Klux Klan and other groups had become more active in response to increasing civil rights activity, especially since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation.

In addition to the Klan’s resistance, the state of Mississippi itself was continuing to monitor activists through the Sovereignty Commission, which worked in conjunction with the White Citizens Council, to use economic intimidation and threats to attempt to keep blacks in subservient positions. Undertaking such struggles for equality was dangerous and courageous work. The work was so bold that the Klan vowed to stop it, even putting Schwerner on a hit list and giving him a code name “Goatee.”

In mid-June, Chaney and Schwerner traveled to Oxford, Ohio, to participate in the Freedom Summer volunteers training session being held there. While they were away, on June 16, Klansmen looking for Chaney and Schwerner assaulted members of Mt. Zion. Later in the evening, they burned the church to the ground. Having been alerted of the attack, Chaney and Schwerner, joined by new volunteer Goodman, immediately drove south to investigate and offer solace to the church members. On Sunday afternoon, June 21, Father’s Day, the three young men drove to Philadelphia from Meridian and visited members of Mt. Zion. After leaving Mt. Zion Church, they were pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy while in the city limits of Philadelphia. Chaney was arrested and charged with speeding, and Schwerner and Goodman were held on suspicion of burning Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.

What transpired afterwards would change the county, the state, and the nation itself. About 10:30 p.m., the three workers were released and ordered to leave town immediately. On the road to Meridian, they were pursued and overtaken by a gang of white men that included law enforcement officials. When the gang stopped them, the three men were pulled from their vehicle and driven to a lonely gravel road off the highway where they were murdered. By the next day, news of their disappearance was known even in the White House. While many white Mississippians denounced the disappearance as a hoax to get attention for Freedom Summer, President Johnson sent in national guardsmen and sailors from the nearby Meridian navy base to scour the county in search of the three workers.

On June 23, the station wagon the young men had been driving was found burned. By then, if it hadn’t seemed clear before, it was now obvious that the three young men had encountered foul play. Back in Oxford, Ohio, the young COFO volunteers had been informed that three of their colleagues were missing and presumed dead. They had to choose whether or not to continue the project, knowing their safety, even their lives, were at risk. As had been the tradition of many in the civil rights movement, however, the brave young people understood that to give in to violence would end the movement. As the search for their fellow volunteers continued, a thousand young people poured into the state, conducting voter registration drives and setting up freedom schools.

On August 4, forty-four days after their disappearance, the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found buried in a newly-constructed earthen dam on a privately owned farm about seven miles south of Philadelphia. By the end of the summer, despite assaults and the burnings of dozens of other churches in the state, the Summer Project had created an impact. Volunteers registered more black voters and initiated a challenge to the all-white Democratic Party that forever changed the national political landscape. Within two years, 100,000 new black voters registered in the state and began running for elective office.

In early 2004, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood reopened the investigation and in early 2005, brought murder charges against Edgar Ray Killen.Forty-one years to the day a Klan mob ambushed and killed the civil rights workers, Edgar Ray Killen was sentenced to sixty years in prison for the manslaughter of all three workers in Philadelphia, the county seat of Neshoba County.

The Call for Justice issued by the Philadelphia Coalition for these murders to be addressed and footage of Edgar Ray Killen being escorted into the courthouse:

The Call for Justice can also be viewed here.

Other videos referencing the murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner:

These videos can also be viewed here.

Sources:

Neshoba County: African-American Heritage Driving Tour of Philadelphia Mississippi. http://www.neshobajustice.com/documents/RootsofStruggle.pdf

http://www.neshoba.org/downloads.html

Neshoba County Jail

In 1964, the Neshoba County Jail was located at 422 Myrtle Street. This is where the three civil rights workers (Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner) were taken and held when arrested on June 21. They were later released around 10:30 P.M. to return to the COFO office in Meridian. Two years later in 1966, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. knelt and prayed at this site.

Sources:

Neshoba County: African-American Heritage Driving Tour of Philadelphia Mississippi. http://www.neshobajustice.com/documents/RootsofStruggle.pdf