June 21 marks the 50th anniversary of the murders of three young civil rights workers who travelled to Mississippi for “Freedom Summer,” to help African American residents understand their constitutional rights and register to vote. Facing deep institutional racism, fewer than five percent of the 500,000 black adults in Mississippi were then registered to vote. Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, knew they were risking their lives for their cause.
On June 21, 1964, after they had investigated the burning of a black church, the three young men were reported missing. Forty-four days later, their bodies were found buried deep in a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The nation later learned that on their way back, the men’s car had been stopped for a pretext traffic violation and the three had been arrested and held for several hours. On their release, they were followed and murdered by members of the Neshoba Country Sheriff’s Department, Philadelphia Police, and members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
When Mississippi prosecutors refused to press murder charges, federal authorities, led by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Doar, brought federal criminal civil rights charges – with mixed results: seven of the 18 defendants were convicted, with sentences between three and ten years. At the sentencing in December 1967, federal judge William Harold Cox crudely explained, “They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.” In 1999, a new generation of Mississippi law enforcement officials reopened proceedings, and in 2005 the State of Mississippi indicted the Klan leader who had led the group. ADL welcomed his conviction.
The murders in Mississippi in 1964 outraged the nation, providing additional momentum to propel passage of the comprehensive Civil Rights Act later that summer – and the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most important, effective civil rights laws – the following year.
We have come a long way as a nation since 1964, but vigilance is necessary to retain that hard-earned progress. In 2013, unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a critical VRA provision in Shelby County v. Holder. The League had urged the Court to uphold the Act in an amicus brief. Instead, a narrow Court majority eliminated the formula to determine which states must seek prior government approval for voting changes. The very day the decision was handed down, a number of states began enacting previously-blocked voter ID laws and redistricting measures.
Now, fifty years later, the League is helping to lead a very large coalition working to fight discrimination, promote equality, and protect the same voting rights for which Schwermer, Goodman, and Chaney gave their lives. ADL is urging broad support for the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA) which would create a new formula for pre-clearing voting rights changes.