The lynching of the three young men occurred shortly after midnight on June 21, 1964, when they went to investigate the burning of a church that supported civil rights activity. James Chaney was a local Freedom Movement activist in Meridian, Michael Schwerner was a CORE organizer from New York, and Andrew Goodman, also from New York, was a Freedom Summer volunteer. The three men had just finished week-long training on the campus of Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, regarding strategies on how to register blacks to vote.
After getting a haircut from a black barber in Meridian, the three men headed to Longdale, Mississippi, 50 miles away in Neshoba County, in order to inspect the ruins of Mount Zion United Methodist Church. The church, a meeting place for civil rights groups, had been burned just five days earlier. Aware that their station wagon's license number had been given to members of the notorious White Citizens' Council and Ku Klux Klan, before leaving Meridian they informed other Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) workers of their plans and set check-in times in accordance with standard security procedures.
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Late that afternoon, Neshoba County deputy Cecil Price — himself a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — stopped the blue Ford carrying the trio. He arrested Chaney for allegedly driving 35 miles per hour over the speed limit. He also booked Goodman and Schwerner, "for investigation. " Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were all denied telephone calls during their time at the jail. COFO workers made attempts to find the three men, but when they called the Neshoba County jail, the secretary followed her instructions to lie and told the workers the three young men were not there.
During the hours they were held incommunicado in jail, Price notified his Klan associates who assembled and planned how to kill the three civil rights workers. While awaiting their release, the men were given a dinner of spoonbread, green peas, potatoes and salad. When the Klan ambush was set up on the road back to Meridian, Chaney was fined $20, and the three men were ordered to leave the county. Price followed them to the edge of town, and then pulled them over with his police siren. He held them until the Klan murder squad arrived.
They were taken to an isolated spot where James Chaney was beaten and all three were shot to death. Their car was driven into Bogue Chitto swamp and set on fire, and their bodies were buried in an earthen dam. In June 2000, the autopsy report that had been previously withheld from the 1967 trial was released. The report stated Chaney had a left arm broken in one place, a right arm broken in two places, "a marked disruption" of the left elbow joint and may also have suffered trauma to the groin area.
A pathologist who examined the bodies at the families' request following their autopsies noted Chaney also had a broken jaw and a crushed right shoulder which were not mentioned in the autopsy report. As the autopsy photographs and X-Rays had been destroyed, the injuries could not be confirmed. Reaction The national uproar caused by the disappearance of the civil rights workers led President Lyndon Johnson to force J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to investigate the case. Hoover's antipathy to civil rights groups caused him to resist until Johnson used indirect threats of political reprisals.
During the investigation, searchers including Navy divers and the FBI discovered the bodies of at least seven other Mississippi blacks, whose disappearances over the past several years had not attracted attention outside their local communities. The disappearance of the three activists captured national attention for six weeks until their bodies were found. Johnson and civil rights activists used the outrage over their deaths in their efforts to bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed July 2, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.