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October 20–Anniversary of the “Mississippi Burning” trial verdict

2011 October 20
by Mandy Mastrovita

Today, October 20, 2011, is the anniversary of the 1967 verdict in United States v. Cecil Price, et al. (383 U.S. 787), also known as the “Mississippi Burning” trial, where a group of eighteen Mississippi Klansmen were charged with conspiracy to deny the constitutional rights of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the three civil rights workers who were ambushed and killed near Philadelphia, Mississippi on June 21, 1964. State murder charges against the defendants in the case were dismissed before a trial could even begin; with Mississippi’s failure to take action, the United States Justice Department intervened. Assistant Attorney General For Civil Rights John Doar filed charges based on the Force Act of 1870, a federal law designed to eradicate white supremacist vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan that emerged throughout the south during Reconstruction.

The trial was presided over by a segregationist federal district court judge, W. Harold Cox, who initially dismissed all federal charges against all but three of the defendants.  Cox’s ruling was reversed by the Supreme Court, and the case was remanded back.  When the trial reconvened, all potential African American jurors were challenged by defense attorneys. The all-white jury convicted seven men, including Cecil Price, the chief deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi, and Sam H. Bowers, Jr., the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Also convicted were Horace Doyle Barnette, Jimmy Arledge, Billy Wayne Posey, Jimmie Snowden, and Alton W. Roberts. Bowers and Roberts received the longest sentences, ten years; Price and Posey six years; Arledge, Snowden and Barnette, three years. No one served more than six years in federal custody.

Eight men received not guilty verdicts. Among them were Lawrence A. Rainey, the sheriff of Neshoba County; Olen L. Burrage, the owner of the farm where the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were buried; Herman Tucker, who built the dam where the bodies were located; and Richard A. Willis, a policeman in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The jury voted the same way for Bernard L. Akin, Travis M. Barnette, James T. Harris, and Frank J. Herndon.

Three men were released because no verdict was reached. This included the conspiracy’s ringleader, Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist minister. One lone juror held out on Killen’s verdict, claiming that she could not convict a preacher. There were also hung verdicts for Ethel Glen Barnett, a nominee for Neshoba County sheriff, and Jerry McGrew Sharpe. Forty years later, Killen’s case was re-opened in 2004 (largely due to information obtained in a recorded interview with Sam H. Bowers, Jr., one of the men convicted in United States v. Cecil Price et al.); Killen was tried and found guilty of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005. He is currently serving out a sixty-year sentence.

The Civil Rights Digital Library includes several oral history interviews and transcripts of interviews with Sam H. Bowers, Jr. Also at hand are MIBURN (Mississippi Burning) FBI records that include the summary of the investigation of the 1964 murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner; the federal chronology of events that took place when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi; numerous archival, reference, and teaching resources on Freedom Summer, and the transcript of a 1985 interview conducted with John Doar for the civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize : America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985.

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