Mississippi Burning: the First Definitive Timeline of the Murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman

January 1964: Michael Henry Schwerner aka "Mickey," employed by CORE, arrives in Mississippi. (Other records state Schwerner worked for COFO, Congress of Federated Organizations.)

March 1964: in late March, at a Klavern [Klansman meeting] in Meridian, the county chapter of the Klan votes to kill Michael Schwerner, though "many members stated local vote unnecessary since agreement already reached at state level."  

May 22, 1964: James E. Chaney aka J.E., while driving Schwerner in a 1963 Ford station wagon, is involved in a possibly orchestrated car accident in which he admits fault. He is fined for "reckless driving." A lawsuit is filed demanding $9,999 in damages. 

"[Witness] gained the impression through this brief conversation with CHANEY that CHANEY had not been associated with CORE prior to this time." (Of the three civil rights workers, only 21 years-old Chaney, born in Meridian, MS, is a local. Except for one summer in Texas, Chaney spent his entire life in Meridian.) 

May 24 or May 25, 1964: Schwerner, driving a car with several African-American passengers, is stopped in Morton, MS and cited for "improper passing." Schwerner lacks the cash to pay his fine and is transported to the Morton mayor's residence until his friends can gather enough money to pay the fine. While the report states "it was not the custom of authorities in Morton to put a person in jail for a violation of this type while waiting for their fine or bond to be paid," it is likely Schwerner was deliberately stopped in order to gather information. 

June 16, 1964: according to Dora Cole, 25 or 30 white men confront church members at the Mt. Zion Methodist Church and "several of the church members were beaten by them." Members met to discuss "educational meetings [remedial schooling aka "Freedom Schools"] to be held at the church to deal with school drop-outs and getting people qualified to vote." (FBI File 44-2227, July 14, 1964) 

June 20, 1964: after weeks of civil rights training in Oxford, OH, Goodman drives to Meridian, MS, arriving at night. In less than 30 hours, he will be murdered. 

June 21, 1964: Chaney is arrested by Mississippi Highway Patrol and/or other local law enforcement for speeding and held in Neshoba County Jail. In the car are Schwerner and Goodman, who are "arrested for investigation." 

"SCHWERNER said they were arrested by Highway Patrolmen and a Sheriff or Deputy Sheriff. (pp. 164, MIBURN, Part 4 of 9)"

Apparently, all three men are first taken to a state hospital before being transferred into the sheriff's custody and county jail but the record does not allow certainty. It is possible the Highway Patrolman escorted the men to the state hospital in order to protect them. 

[Note: subsequent FBI investigations report that Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were arrested by Neshoba County Sheriff Price around 3:00pm.]

June 21, 1964: around 10:00pm, after paying a fine, all three men are released and indicate they are heading to Meridian. 

June 21, 1964: while on their way to Meridian, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman are arrested again by local law enforcement, put into vehicles, and transported 
near an unfinished earthen dam "about fifteen or twenty miles away" from Philadelphia, MS. They are taken out of the vehicles one at a time and on a nondescript country road, where Klansman Wayne Roberts asks Schwerner, "shaking his finger in his face," "Do you think you're as good as a n*gg*er?" or "Are you that n*gg*r lover?" 

Schwerner, most likely stunned and frightened, does not respond until the third time the question is asked. The third time Schwerner hears the question, he responds, "I know just how you feel, sir." 
Using a .38 revolver, Klansman Roberts shoots Schwerner once between the ribs at point blank range. Goodman is removed from the car and shot once in a similar fashion, then Klansman Jim Jordan shoots Chaney three times. (MIBURN files, Part 4 of 9, pp. 174) Later, another Klansman refers to the three murdered civil rights workers as "the anti-Christs."

The Klansmen transport the dead bodies a few miles away. When buried near an unfinished dam, Chaney was lying face down in a ditch; Goodman was lying face down in crumpled position; and Schwerner was lying face down in a position similar to Chaney. When their bodies were discovered, the bulldozer used to bury them or deployed to find them had so damaged the men's bodies that people assumed all three were beaten severely before being shot; in fact, none was beaten. 

June 29, 1964: in a letter postmarked from McComb, MS on June 29 from Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield, MS, Andrew Goodman tells his parents, "three men brought me here from Philadelphia, Miss. after burning our station wagon. After being admitted here, Channey [sic], Schwerner and I were separated and locked up in a cell... I haven't been able to get any messages out to you. They were all torn up by the nurse... I am doing as well as can be expected. Please do not worry about me. NAACP is only twelve miles away. Love to all, Andy." 

When Goodman's body was discovered, evidence indicated he was buried alive. His left hand was clenched in a fist and contained an object used to attempt to unearth himself: "The left hand of this body was clenched in a tight fist. Opening of this fist disclosed a rock-like object." (MIBURN, Part 5 of 9)

July 8, 1964: Schwerner's parents hire attorney William Moses Kunstler to file a federal complaint charging conspiracy, kidnapping, terrorism, and possible murder. 

July 15, 1964: FBI takes a report indicating on June 22, 1964, witnesses saw a "burned station wagon" while fishing on the Bogue Chitto Creek. The witness is mistakenly listed as a "suspect." 

Assuming only one 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon belonged to the three civil rights workers, apparently plans had changed: "No, HERMAN [TUCKER] will take it [station wagon] to Alabama where it will be burned." 

July 1964: "[Klansman] James E. Jordan [aka Jim Jordan] disposes of a foreign-made pistol... [possibly a Luger] by melting it down." 

August 4, 1964: based on information from a confidential informant, possibly Horace Doyle Barnett, the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman are found. 

October 1964: the FBI arrests 18 men allegedly connected with the murders but the state of Mississippi refuses to try them, citing a lack of evidence.

1964 to 1967: to gain informants, the FBI infiltrates Lauderdale County's KKK but may not have realized judges--who have discretion in approving jury members--probably do not attend Klan meetings. It is unclear whether any federal judges were discovered to be part of the Klan.

The FBI proceeds to turn Klan members against each other by promoting the least competent members into leadership positions, then sowing division: 

"Klansman GEORGE H. BIRDSONG, aka Billy, was pushed into a leadership role in the Lauderdale County Klavern through the activities of Jackson informants to exploit his nasty disposition and his wild and intemperate manner. He succeed in destroying harmony in klan operations not only internally in Lauderdale County but with the state klan organization and the adjacent Neshoba organization..." (Defection of George H. Birdsong)

1967: seven men are convicted on federal conspiracy charges. None serve more than six years, and none are tried for murder. The ringleader, Edgar Ray Killen aka Preacher Killen, is not convicted and continues working as a Christian pastor.

Klansman oath: I "hereby pledge, swear and dedicate my mind and my body to the holy cause of preserving Christian civilization... Not only will I die in order to preserve Christian civilization but I will live and labor mightily for the Spirit of Christ and all men..."

1989: one year after the movie Mississippi Burning, the Attorney General of Mississippi begins looking into whether sufficient evidence exists to prosecute Edgar Killen. The review is code-named "The Saladin Project."

January 7, 2005: based on new evidence, including a Sam Bowers interview, Edgar Killen is charged with manslaughter. On June 21, he is convicted. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2021) 

Bonus: it is possible to create a more definitive timeline, but not without procuring all records relating to Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney from Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield, MS.


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