Important date for civil rights

Yesterday marked an important date in the history of the United States civil rights movement.

On June 21, 1964, two members of the original “Freedom Riders” and a young black man were murdered near Philadelphia, Miss. The deaths of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwermer and James Chaney caused a national outrage.

The three young men were working on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality to register black voters in Mississippi.

Later court documents revealed a conspiracy between local law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan in the slayings.

The murders preceded by a mere two weeks the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law on July 2 by President Lyndon Johnson. Although a compromise had been reached before the deaths of the young men to break a Senate filibuster, the tragic events of June 21 added impetus to the passage.

Eighteen men were arrested by the FBI but Mississippi prosecutors refused to proceed. The men were then tried in federal court and seven were convicted on federal conspiracy charges, but none served longer than six years in jail.

Eight men were acquitted and three trials ended in mistrials. One of those whose case ended in mistrial was Edgar Ray Killen, who allegedly planned the killings. He would go unpunished until – at the age of 80 – he was finally convicted of manslaughter in the case on June 21, 2005. It was the 41st anniversary of the slayings.

Killen received the maximum sentence of 60 years in prison.

Those two events – 41 years apart – track the progress of the United States. The tragedy of the civil rights workers’ murders was finally avenged by a more mature, and caring, country.

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.