Mississippi Burning & the LBJ Tapes

Mississippi Burning, 1964, by Kent Germany and David Carter

Exactly 41 years after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the state of Mississippi obtained its first homicide conviction in the case. On Tuesday June 21, 2005, 9 white and 3 black jurors convicted 80-year-old Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen of manslaughter for his role in orchestrating the nighttime roadside lynching, which transpired approximately a half-mile from his house. For his crime, Killen received the maximum sentence of 60 years.

Although this was the first state conviction, it was not the first in the case, as federal conspiracy charges had led to prison time for a few of the men involved in the murders. In October 1967 in federal court, an all-white jury convicted seven white men, including Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. Eight others, including Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, were acquitted. The cases of three others—one of them involving Edgar Killen—ended in a mistrial. At the time, no one was brought to trial on state murder charges. Killen’s 2005 trial, like the recent trials of Byron De La Beckwith for murdering Medgar Evers and of Thomas Blanton for killing 4 black girls in Birmingham, has proved once again the epigram of Mississippi’s sage novelist William Faulkner that "The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” While the U.S. government is engaged in a struggle against terrorism worldwide, the Killen case offers a reminder of the realities of racial segregation and the use of terrorism at home to attempt to preserve white supremacy.

In 1964, the disappearance and presumed murder of these activists at the beginning of Freedom Summer captivated the nation and became a landmark moment in the history of the civil rights movement. The attention focused on Mississippi, however, did not stop violence against civil rights activists or black Mississippians. Over the course of Freedom Summer, three other bodies of murdered black men were found, each of them had been lynched (Charles Moore and Henry Dee were found in mid-July in a lake off of the Mississippi River; A young man wearing a CORE t-shirt, likely a teenager named Herbert Oarsby, was found in the Big Black River). There were also approximately 70 bombings or burnings, 80 beatings, and over 1,000 arrests of activists. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) incident report, a single-spaced document that offered brief daily summaries, was over ten pages long.

On June 21, 1964, two days after the Senate passage of the Civil Rights Act and two weeks before President Johnson signed that landmark piece of legislation, a band of white supremacists associated with the Ku Klux Klan and the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department took political matters into their own hands and murdered Chaney and Schwerner—both veteran activists involved in political mobilization efforts, one an African-American from Mississippi and the other a Jewish social worker from New York City that some locals called "Goatee"—and Goodman—one of the idealistic white college students who had arrived in the state the day before as part of Freedom Summer.

The FBI's case became part of their investigation into church-burnings known as MIBURN or Mississippi Burning (see MIBURN documents in the FBI's online reading room). A controversial Hollywood film of the same name was released in 1988 (Mississippi Burning; dir. Alan Parker) that stirred further interest in the case, but caused many civil rights activists to shudder in horror at the heroic presentation of the FBI and at the downplaying of black activism in the movement.

Despite the existence of court records, news reports, oral histories, and documents relating to the investigation, the violent events of that summer will never be entirely clear, and students of history will continue to debate the ambiguities of evidence in attempting to understand that muggy, 80 degree Mississippi night. One resource, though, that captures the immediacy of their disappearance and the complications it presented for federal and state authorities--and for activists—is the collection of secret recordings made by President Lyndon Johnson.

Below is an abbreviated timeline of the incident and selected conversations recorded in LBJ’s Oval Office. These materials are from a forthcoming Miller Center volume, Kent Germany and David Carter, eds., Crisis of Victory: Lyndon Johnson, the Politics of Race, and the White House Tapes.

To listen to the audio press the PLAY buttons [ ] or use the MP3, FLAC, or WAV links to download the audio file to your computer. More help on digital audio is available here. Click on the dates to see the President's Daily Diary for those days.

June 20, 1964 To augment the three year-old civil rights organizing efforts of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the first contingent of Freedom Summer volunteers began arriving in Mississippi after training sessions in Oxford, Ohio. Approximately 250 activists made it to the Magnolia State from June 20-22. One of them was Andrew Goodman, the son of a prominent Jewish family from Manhattan. Before the students left Ohio, they had been briefed by John Doar, a representative from the Justice Department who informed them that the federal government could not provide them with protection and emphasized that local and state officials held the responsibility for maintaining law and order, an ominous assurance given Mississippi's track record for protecting civil rights. In Mississippi and elsewhere in the South, civil rights activists complained bitterly about the lack of federal protection and many believed that Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover was an enemy of the movement (and he certainly had many activists under FBI surveillance, particularly through COINTELPRO, of which some 50,000 pages of documents have been partially declassified by the FBI). A prominent feeling was that the FBI investigated white racial violence when pressed to do so, but those investigations often went little beyond intelligence gathering and thus served little deterrent value to would-be white terrorists. The tactics of Freedom Summer offered a challenge to the Johnson administration. In response, the planned movement of white students into Mississippi had stimulated serious concern in the administration that the situation might become unmanageable. To see two memoranda on the issue see, Robert F. Kennedy to President Johnson, 21 May 1964; and see Douglass Cater to President Johnson, 19 May 1964.
June 21, 1964 James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman went to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion Church in the Longdale community in Neshoba County, near Philadelphia, Mississippi. While attempting to return to Meridian, Mississippi, they were arrested for traffic violations and jailed. After being released from jail at 10 pm, they disappeared. When they did not report in by phone as civil rights workers in Mississippi were trained to do, fellow activists began calling local and federal law enforcement officials. Although many feared the worst, none of them knew for certain that the activists had been killed on a rural roadway by a mob of white supremacists in conspiracy with Neshoba County law enforcement officials.
June 22, 1964 Mississippi civil rights activists contacted Mississippi-based FBI agents the night before and reached Justice Department official John Doar in the early morning, setting in motion a process to expand the federal presence in Mississippi, although activists believed the government worked too slowly. Additional FBI agents began to be added on the ground around 11:30 am and continued through the night. The lead inspector, Joseph Sullivan, arrived in the early evening. President Johnson had spent a busy day entertaining the Prime Minister of Turkey.
June 23, 1964

LBJ expanded the investigation into the disappearance by prodding J. Edgar Hoover, by seeking advice from Cabinet officers and congressional leaders, and by involving the Defense Department (eventually bringing in hundreds of sailors to scour the countryside, particularly its swampy areas where it was presumed bodies might have been hidden). The President received reports and held meetings throughout the day. Beginning around noon, he turned on his Dictabelt telephone recorders.

Johnson’s first recorded report was with Lee White, a holdover from the Kennedy administration who served as Johnson’s chief aide on civil rights matters. The two discussed how best to respond to James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was one of the chief groups involved in the COFO voter registration campaign and Freedom Summer.

LISTEN:
DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

12:35 p.m.
To Lee White

LBJ called Lee White, his chief aide on civil rights matters, to discuss how to respond to James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

President Johnson: I asked [J. Edgar] Hoover last . . . two weeks ago . . . after talking to the Attorney General to fill up Mississippi with FBI men and infiltrate everything he could; that they’re hauling them in by the dozens; that I’ve asked him to put more men after these three kids; that he hauled them in last night.

Lee White: Right.

President Johnson: That I’ve asked him for another report today; that I’m shoving it as much as I know how; that I didn’t ask them to go, and I can’t control the actions of Mississippi people. The only weapon I have for locating them is the FBI. I haven’t got any state police or any constables, and the FBI is better than marshals, and I’ve got all of them I’ve got looking after them. I can’t find them myself—[section closed under the terms of the deed of gift]

~ Edit ~

President Johnson:  . . . and that I’ve got—given them already a standing order to stay on it day and night. Now, have you . . . What do they think happened? Think they got killed?

Lee White: This morning they had had absolutely no trace. There’s no sign of the automobile. They have found nobody who’s seen the car or the three people. So, as far as they’re concerned, they’ve just disappeared from the face of the earth. 

Over the next four hours, he spoke to the Speaker of the House (twice) and the Secretary of Commerce--southern native Luther Hodges--about the complications of using extensive federal force in the South. He also made several calls regarding campaign issues and received a message from Attorney General Robert Kennedy. At 3:35, he spoke to Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, expressing his reservations about setting the precedent of meeting with the parents of missing civil rights workers:

I’m afraid that if I start house-mothering each kid that’s gone down there and that doesn’t show up, that we’ll have this White House full of people every day asking for sympathy and congressmen too, because they want to come over and have their picture made and get on TV, and I don’t know whether the president of the United States ought to be busy doing that or not.

 
LISTEN:
DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

3:35 p.m.
To Nicholas Katzenbach

Johnson tried to return Attorney General Kennedy’s call, but had to settle for the deputy attorney general. This snippet is part of a 9-minute call.

President Johnson: What do you think happened to them?

Katzenbach: I think they got picked up by some of these Klan people, be my guess.

President Johnson: And murdered?

Katzenbach: Yeah, probably or else they’re just being hidden in one of those barns or something, you know, and getting the hell scared out of them. But I would not be surprised if they’d been murdered, Mr. President. Pretty rough characters.

President Johnson: How old are these kids?

Katzenbach: 20 and 24 and 22.

 

LISTEN:

TRANSCRIPT+AUDIO CLIP

DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

 

LISTEN:
DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

 

LISTEN:
DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

 

 

LISTEN:
DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

 

LISTEN:

TRANSCRIPT+AUDIO CLIP

DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

 

LISTEN:
DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

 

June 24 to August 3, 1964

Over the next week, Johnson continued to press for results in the investigation, while turning more of his attention to other matters of state, particularly the conference report on the Civil Rights bill. In a triumphal moment, he signed the act on July 2. The bill’s victory was bittersweet for activists in Mississippi and the loved ones of the three missing men. Despite exploring hundreds of leads, the investigation had yielded scant evidence of the men’s location and had led to no arrests. A major break in the case occurred in early August when an FBI informant (paid $30,000) pointed the Bureau to a farm pond just southwest of Philadelphia.

August 4, 1964
LISTEN:
DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

8:01 p.m.
From Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, Assistant Director of the FBI

Assistant Director of the FBI Cartha “Deke” DeLoach called Johnson to notify him that the bodies had been found. That day, Johnson was also coping with racial disorders in New Jersey as well as the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

 

LISTEN:
DOWNLOAD AUDIO: MP3 : FLAC : WAV

Immediately following
To Lee White

 

Summer 1964 Over the course of Freedom Summer, there were at least three murders, approximately 70 bombings or burnings, over 80 beatings, and over 1,000 arrests of civil rights activists. The COFO incident report, a single-spaced document that offered brief daily summaries, was over ten pages long.
October 1967 In October 1967, an all-white jury convicted seven white men, including Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, on federal conspiracy charges. Eight others, including Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, were acquitted. The cases of three others ended in a mistrial. No one was brought to trial on state murder charges. Edgar Ray Killen was released by a hung jury, 11-1, reportedly because one juror could not bring herself to convict a preacher.
June 21, 2005 Exactly 41 years after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the state of Mississippi obtained its first homicide conviction in the case. On Tuesday June 21, 2005, 9 white and 3 black jurors convicted 80-year-old Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen of manslaughter for his role in orchestrating the nighttime roadside lynching, which occurred approximately a half-mile from his house. Two days later, he received the maximum sentence--60 years in prison.

Back to Top ^

 

 
 

Recommended Reading:

    • Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (New York: MacMillan, 1988)
    • John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1995)
    • Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
    • Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)
    • Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-64 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998)
Further Resources:

    Exhibit Credits:

    • Transcription: John Monahan, Robert Johnson, Ashley Havard-High, Seth Center, David Carter, and Kent Germany
    • Text & Editing: Kent Germany and David Carter
    • Web & Multimedia Design: David Coleman
    • Digital Archivist: Michael Greco
    • Hosted by WhiteHouseTapes.org
    • Presidential Recordings Program (Timothy Naftali, Director), Miller Center of Public Affairs
    • Original LBJ tapes and photographs courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library