‘Mississippi Burning’ case files now open to the public
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Case files, photos, and other records documenting the 1964 murders of three civil rights activists are now available to researchers at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
The materials were gathered and compiled by the Mississippi attorney general’s office in 2004 when it reopened the case involving the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, according to an MDAH news release.
The case and investigation culminated in 2005 with the trial and conviction of Edgar Ray Killen.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood closed the investigation in 2015 and the files were transferred to the MDAH in the spring of 2019.
Documents include case files, FBI memoranda, research notes, photographs of the victims’ bodies and autopsies, aerial photos of the burial site, federal informant reports, and witness testimonies.
Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and author of Race Against Time, said he’s grateful the files are being made available and plans to review them.
“The people have the right to know,” he said.
Mitchell, who was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 1964 slayings, said he plans to review the documents once he gets a chance.
“These are largely unredacted files. So this is, from a researcher’s perspective, a reporter’s perspective, ideal,” he said. “Usually when you get to look at FBI files, you don’t get unredacted files.”
Mitchell, who reviewed many of the documents as a reporter, doesn’t believe they will lead to additional arrests but believes it could help give people a better perspective of the crimes committed and give victims’ family members additional closure.
“I don’t know what they’ve included in that,” he said.
Mitchell suspects the records include things that are “tangential” to the case, such as documents speaking to the election of Lawrence Rainey as Neshoba County sheriff.
“Whenever Lawrence Rainey came into office... there got to be a lot of violence against Black Americans, especially Black men,” Mitchell said. “Those are kind of things that are in there.”
Rainey was sheriff of Neshoba County from 1963 to 1967 and was among individuals charged with civil rights violations in connection with covering up the slayings, according to the L.A. Times. However, was never convicted.
In June 1964, during Freedom Summer, Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were on their way to investigate the burning of a church when they were abducted, killed, and buried in an earthen dam, MDAH reports.
The victims were found in August and in October of that year, the federal government charged 18 individuals with conspiracy, including Killen and Rainey.
Six individuals, including a Neshoba sheriff’s deputy, were convicted. Killen, a former minister and member of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of manslaughter in 2005, years after the case had been reopened.
Materials are available to the public free of charge at the William F. Winter Archives and History Building at 200 North St. in Jackson. For more information, log onto www.mdah.ms.gov.
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