By Emily Wagster Pettus
JACKSON, Miss.— Three civil rights workers who were killed by Ku Klux Klansmen in 1964 are going to be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but the honor makes some of their relatives uneasy.
They worry it could relegate the racial equality movement to history books when it should instead be seen as relevant as ever, particularly in light of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old in August.
A widow of one of the civil rights activists said the honor, which will be awarded Monday in a ceremony at the White House, “distorts history.”
“There were not just three men who were part of a struggle. There were not just three men who were killed,” Rita Schwerner Bender told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her law office in Seattle. “You know, the struggle in this country probably started with the first revolt on a slave ship, and it continues now.”
The civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — were killed June 21, 1964, in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The FBI launched a massive investigation that it dubbed “Mississippi Burning,” and the three bodies were found 44 days later, buried in an earthen dam.
Goodman’s younger brother, David Goodman of Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, said the killings received intense national attention, from President Lyndon B. Johnson on down, because two of the activists, Goodman and Schwerner, were white.
“It took (the deaths of) two white men to wake up white America what black America in the South particularly knew — that you could get murdered for your opinion or wanting to vote,” David Goodman said.
Schwerner, of New York, moved to Mississippi in early 1964 to work on black voter registration and other projects. Chaney, who was black and from Mississippi, befriended him. Goodman, who was also from New York, underwent civil rights training in Ohio before arriving in Mississippi.
The three men drove to Neshoba County on June 21, 1964, to investigate the burning of a black church. As they left the church, a deputy stopped their station wagon, cited Chaney for speeding and took the three to the Neshoba County jail. The deputy released them late that night, and the men were ambushed by awaiting Klansmen who chased them to an isolated country road and shot them to death.
In 1967, an all-white jury in Meridian convicted seven men on federal civil rights charges tied to the conspiracy to kill Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. The state reopened an investigation decades later, and on June 21, 2005 — exactly 41 years after the slayings — a jury made up of whites and blacks in Neshoba County convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter. He remains in state prison.
Chaney’s sister, the Rev. Julia Chaney Moss, of Willingboro, New Jersey, said her older brother would always ask their mother: “’Why do we have to live this way?’”
She said the award should be for all of those killed during the civil rights movement.
“It’s really about all of those families,” she said. “It’s really about the history of the pain of the African-American experience in Mississippi.”
The activists are among 19 people, including Stevie Wonder and Meryl Streep, who will be awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor Monday.