Fifty-five years ago Friday, three civil rights workers — James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 24, and Michael Schwerner, 20 — went missing in Mississippi. Earlier that night, they had been pulled over for allegedly speeding, arrested and released. Then they were gone.
Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) told President Lyndon B. Johnson it was fake news.
Eastland’s legacy is under scrutiny in recent days as former vice president Joe Biden touted his relationship with the longtime senator, who died in 1986.
Eastland was an avowed segregationist, who often said black people were “an inferior race.” He served in the Senate for 35 years. In the 1970s, Biden got help from Eastland on an antibusing bill to stop court-mandated desegregation of schools.
Johnson knew Eastland from his time as a senator in the 1950s. He often called Eastland for advice. Though Johnson went on to pass landmark civil rights bills Eastland vehemently opposed, behind closed doors the two spoke about black people in similar, offensive terms.
In June 1964, two days after Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner went missing near Philadelphia, Miss., Johnson called Eastland for counsel. The call from the Oval Office was recorded, and the audio is now available at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“Jim, we got three kids missing down there. What can I do about it?” Johnson asked.
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t believe there’s three missing,” he responded. “I believe it’s a publicity stunt.”
Johnson told Eastland the missing men’s parents were in Washington and wanted to meet with him, which he wanted to avoid.
“I’m gonna tell you right now why I think there isn’t a damn thing to it,” Eastland said. He told Johnson what he had heard of the men’s last known whereabouts. “There’s not a Ku Klux Klan in that area. There’s not a [White] Citizens’ Council in the area. There’s no organized white man in that area.”
It is a remarkable admission, considering Eastland himself was active with the White Citizens’ Council. Yet he implied to the president that if some harm befell civil rights workers, members of the council would be prime suspects.
Johnson asked Eastland to act as a go-between with the Mississippi governor, and they joked about how many men it would take to overpower them if they were being attacked by a mob.
When Johnson called back later, the tone was much more grave. Eastland said he had talked to the governor, and the governor also believed the story was fishy.
Johnson cut to the chase: He had just gotten off the phone with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had told him the car the men had been traveling in had been found. It had been set on fire and was still smoldering too much to tell if there were bodies inside.
“Well, I don’t know nothing about that,” Eastland said.
The bodies of the men were not inside the car. They were found six weeks later buried in a mud dam. All three had been shot; Chaney, who was black, had been tortured before he was killed.
Mississippi authorities did little to bring those responsible to justice. Eventually, 18 men were brought up on federal charges for depriving Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner of their civil rights — the most the federal authorities could charge them with at the time.
Seven were convicted. One of the acquitted men was Edgar Ray Killen, a KKK leader and the leader of the group that killed the three men.
Killen was found guilty of manslaughter in June 21, 2005, 41 years to the day after the men were killed. He died in prison in 2018.
At the trial, a witness testified that Killen had bragged about the killings and told him Goodman had tried to strike a conciliatory tone just before he was shot.
He said Goodman’s last words were, “I understand how you feel, sir.”
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