Mississippi Burning at the Supreme Court

On Monday, President Obama awarded Medals of Freedom to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of their deaths. Early in the summer of 1964, the three men were working with the Mississippi voter registration drive known as “Freedom Summer.” Local police arrested them for a supposed traffic violation and then released them in the middle of the night into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. The lynch mob beat them, shot them, and buried them beneath an earthen dam. The FBI’s eventual discovery of their bodies put to rest claims of white Mississippians that the civil rights workers’ disappearance was some sort of publicity stunt. The search for their bodies lasted through much of the summer and became a national news story, fueled in large part by the fact that Goodman and Schwerner were white northerners. Their murders pushed public opinion further behind the cause of the civil rights struggle, helping to lay the groundwork for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The tragic history of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner—which would be popularized in the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning—included a major Supreme Court decision. United States v. Price involved the appeal of a federal district court opinion that dismissed the indictments of eighteen members of the Ku Klux Klan, including three government officials (Cecil Price was a deputy sheriff), for the federal crime of conspiring to deprive individuals of their constitutional rights. The Justices heard oral arguments in November 1965. Arguing the case for the government was none other than Thurgood Marshall, who had recently been appointed Solicitor General.

On opening his oral argument, Marshall summarized the chilling facts of the case: “It is alleged that three of the defendants, namely the sheriff of Neshoba County, his deputy, and a local policeman, used their official powers to release the victims who were in state custody, [and] turned them over to a lynch mob, which one of the officers had shielded by his presence, with the view that they’d be summarily punished without benefit of trial and as alleged in defiance of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Listen to the Oyez audio clip of the rest of the opening of Marshall’s oral argument here.

(Note: Marshall was interrupted by questions from the bench only two times during his entire presentation. This was an indication that the justices were basically in agreement with Marshall’s reading of the relevant federal law—the justices peppered his opposing counsel with skeptical questions—and a reflection of the norms at oral argument during the Warren Court, which was quite different from today’s more justice-centered oral arguments.)

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Abe Fortas, unanimously reversed the district court. The subsequent trial resulted in the conviction of seven men for conspiracy to kill Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman.

Decades later Mississippi reopened its investigation into the three killings. In 2005 a jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty of manslaughter. Killen is currently serving his sentence in state prison.

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