Dave Dennis of CORE gives eulogy at James Chaney’s funeral after his murder, along with two other civil rights workers, in Neshoba County, 1964, Freedom50.
A Story from Here
Philadelphia was the place where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner were murdered at the beginning of Freedom Summer. But the story of the work that got them killed begins in Meridian, Mississippi, a small city near the Alabama border that neighbors Neshoba County where Philadelphia is located. This was a CORE project but like SNCC’s work in the Delta, was really a part of the expanding work of COFO. Neshoba County was notoriously dangerous Ku Klux Klan territory. However, just as Bob Moses could not refuse the request for a SNCC presence in equally dangerous Amite County, Mickey Schwerner could not ignore requests for their presence in Neshoba County.
Mickey and his wife Rita came to Meridian in 1963 as CORE field secretaries, working as full-time organizers in the state. Larry Martin was eleven when the two white civil rights workers came to Meridian – Freedom Riders as he thought of them. “We were little kids running around down there, and one day we saw those white guys going up those stairs [of the community center they organized]. We used to go and just read.” They also learned freedom songs.
Soon, James Chaney, became actively involved, despite misgivings from his parents who rightfully feared for his life. He and Mickey and Rita worked on voter registration, trying to get local adults to the county courthouse to take the registration test. They relied on local youths like Chaney’s brother Ben and Larry to canvass and pass out leaflets. According to Larry, they’d “walk for miles a day passing out pamphlets, trying to get people registered.”
The Meridian crew began to organize in areas outside of Meridian. In Neshoba County, they began planning with Mt. Zion Baptist Church to use their church as a Freedom School. However, before the start of summer project, local klansmen burned the church to the ground. Scwherner and Chaney, along with New York summer volunteer Andrew Goodman, went to investigate the arson. The Neshoba County deputy sheriff Cecil Price, himself a member of the Klan, first arrested the three and then handed them over to a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob. They were killed. Unlike the murders of countless Black people in the state, these murders brought national attention to the terror Black Mississippians encountered in the fight for freedom and full citizenship.
Following the Civil War, several communities of Black landowners were established in Neshoba County, including Mt. Zion. The community was full of strong people who fought to maintain their humanity in a racially-hostile environment. In 1948, the people of Mt. Zion and the neighboring Black community of Poplar Springs decided they needed their own high school so that the community’s children could receive a higher education. Using borrowed money and a grant from the state, the community built Longdale High School. This made education was more accessible to Mt. Zion residents, many of whom went to college. Residents of Mt. Zion were also active in the NAACP and voter registration during the fifties. The local NAACP chapter held meetings in Longdale High School, to the dismay of the white community. There was racial violence in Neshoba well before 1964. Neshoba boasted a strong klan presence, who used violence to maintain the racial status quo. Like elsewhere in the Deep South, Neshoba County residents ranged from violently racist klansmen to politically progressive and courageous Black people.
Seth Cagin and Phillip Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi
Florence Mars, Witness in Philadelphia