In the History Corner… Victims of racial violence, three families who left Mississippi

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June 21, 1964 a mob of white men, members of the Ku Klux Klan, including law enforcement officials, entrapped and lynched James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Their bodies were found and unearthed 44 days later. Within days of Chaney’s funeral, the family moved to New York.

The story of James Earl Chaney had made not just national but international news. Civil rights organizations and advocates from around the country had decided to make Mississippi the focal point of their campaign against racial segregation and discrimination. It was 1964, the summer after the famed March on Washington. It was during the congressional debate over national civil rights legislation. It had been dubbed by its advocates and the media as “Freedom Summer.”

Thousands of white students were being trained and given an orientation so that they could travel to the state to assist Black residents in at least three things – voter education, community organizing, and unbiased history, especially the history of southern racism. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were members of that group of white students travelling to Mississippi. (Schwerner, in fact, had arrived earlier because he was a staff member of the Congress on Racial Equality.) They had gotten to know Chaney, who was a lifelong resident of Meridian, Mississippi, and was serving as a volunteer for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).

Chaney – who turned 21 the summer of his lynching, had grown up Catholic and attended St. Joseph Catholic Church and the affiliated high school most of his early years – had been noted for his activism and support of civil rights causes prior to that summer. He and a few classmates had been suspended for wearing makeshift NAACP badges at school. He had also taken several “freedom rides,” both in-state and out-of-state.

In his work with CORE, Chaney was an effective liaison who could put white workers and volunteers in touch with local Black groups because he was so well known and respected. On the occasion in June 1964, a congregation with whom Chaney had worked had had its church burned to the ground because it was learned by racist opponents that CORE had been working with them. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner drove from Meridian to investigate the burning. The three were arrested, but released after several hours, during which time the lynch mob was being assembled. Upon their release, they were sent out of town, without having been afforded the opportunity to make a telephone call. They were then followed and intercepted by the mob, killed, and buried.

The funeral of Chaney was held in Meridian, but none were permitted for his white counterparts. Arrests were made, but it would take 40 years before Edgar Ray Killen, the ring leader of the mob, would be convicted. Most of the other members were given fairly light sentences, if convicted at all.

For many people, that was the end of the story. Unknown to the general public, because of death threats, James Earl Chaney’s family, with the assistance of the Goodman family, the Schwerner family, and other supporters, moved to New York. It is there that Chaney’s younger brother, Ben, finished school and the rest of the family remained rather than remain in Mississippi.

This fate of the Chaney family, literally fleeing the state because of death threats following the lynching of James Earl Chaney, is tragic enough even if it stood as a one-of-a kind incident. Such, however, is not the case. It stands as a pattern as one looks at the mass migration of Black people out of the South, and out of Mississippi in particular.

Nine years before Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were lynched, Emmett Till had been lynched in Tallahatchie/Sunflower/Leflore counties. (We use all three counties because it is not definitively clear where he was actually killed.) The broad outline of events are that Till had come to Money, Mississippi from Chicago, visiting his uncle and cousins and had some type of racially-taboo encounter with white store clerk Carolyn Bryant; and that her husband, Roy Bryant and his brother, J.W. Milam led a group to forcibly kidnap Till and lynch him over the next several hours.

Investigations were held, those by Tallahatchie County and Leflore County and those by private investigators led by Dr. T.R.M. Howard. Trials were conducted, and Bryant and Milam were freed by an all-white jury. Of course, there was outrage in the Black community. It was such a scandal until it virtually kicked-off the modern civil rights movement.

Again, however, the story did not end for Till’s family. His mother and other relatives were already in Chicago, but his uncle Moses Wright immediately moved his family to Chicago as well. He and the boys left in such haste that many of their material possessions were simply abandoned. Wright feared for his life because he had identified Bryant and Milam during the trial. The Wright boys were also in danger because of what they knew. In addition to that family, Willie Reed and Mandy Bradley also fled the state after the trial because they feared for their lives, having seen or heard too much. Because of the role that he had played in investigating, providing lodging and otherwise supporting the prosecution efforts, even the wealthy and well-known physician, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, secretly left the state behind that racial incident. His name was reportedly on a list of Black leaders to be killed.

In short, another Black family was uprooted as a result of having been victimized by racial violence. Only this time, it was much broader than just the family members; it included other Black residents as well.

In between the fleeing of the family of Emmett Till and that of James Chaney, as quietly as it may have been kept, after the trial of Byron de la Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers, Myrlie Evers moved with her children to Claremont, California. Racial violence was too much to continue enduring. Mississippi’s racial violence had taken its toll. Although the intensity of the Evers family’s panic may not have been as acute as that which characterized the Chaneys and the Wrights, it, nevertheless, demonstrated the importance of racial violence as a factor in Black people leaving Mississippi.

The records show that the percentage of Black people in the state fell from more than 50% before the 1950 Census to less than 40% by the end of the Civil Rights Movement. Thousands had been driven-out. There are many older Black citizens who have had such bad memories of Mississippi until they do not even care to visit.

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In the History Corner… Victims of racial violence, three families who left Mississippi

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
June 28, 2021