For every person killed, there was a killer — in most cases more than one. Some acted out of impulsive rage. Others used their legal authority to enforce the rules of a dying social order. At the forefront of the racial terrorism of the s and s was the Ku Klux Klan. Klansmen have been identified as the killers of 14 of the individuals honored on the Memorial. Their stories are told below. But that number is surely an incomplete accounting. Many killings attributed to unknown night riders were likely the work of the Klan. The heroic spirit of those who gave up their lives in the cause of racial freedom should not be forgotten.
Nor should the crimes of those who forced them to make that sacrifice. The racial climate in Montgomery, Alabama, was palpably ugly in early A grass-roots movement of black citizens — led by the rev. The Ku Klux Klan reacted violently. Members of the Klan marched through Montgomery in an effort to terrorize black bus riders and bombed the homes and businesses of boycott supporters. Several members of a local Ku Klux Klan group decided that only the murder of a black would express their outrage. Willie Edwards Jr. On Jan. Their intent was to harass the regular driver of the truck, whom they suspected of dating a white woman.
Not knowing what he looked like, they mistakenly assumed that Edwards, the fill-in, was their target. The Klansmen forced Edwards into their vehicle and drove through rural Montgomery County. Though Edwards denied making advances to white women, his kidnappers tortured him repeatedly. Finally, they ordered him at gunpoint to jump off a bridge over the Alabama river.
Seeing his only hope of escape, he leaped into the water below.
His decomposed body was found three months later. The investigation turned up no suspects and was quickly closed. But a judge threw out the indictments on a legal technicality, and the men were never brought to trial. As the summer of waned, blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, had reason to celebrate. Stung by harsh criticism of these repressive measures, local and federal officials were dismantling laws which prohibited black access to public institutions.
But the Ku Klux Klan, holding firm to its belief in white supremacy, intensified its efforts to intimidate blacks. Some eight hours later, as Sunday worship services were about to begin, an explosion ripped through the brick structure. The FBI identified the group of Klansmen responsible for the bombing, but inexplicably no one was charged.
Klansman Robert Chambliss, then 73, was found guilty of first degree murder and spent the remainder of his life in prison. The civil rights struggle in Mississippi was fought on many fronts during the summer of College students from the North descended on Mississippi in response to the call of civil rights leaders for an all-out campaign to expose the injustices of racial segregation. White opponents fought back with a bloody campaign of beatings, church burnings and murders. Their most noted victims were three civil rights workers killed near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
But one month before those murders, two White Knights were implicated in the murder of a pair of young men near the southwest Mississippi town of Meadville. Charles Eddie Moore, 20, had just been expelled from college for participating in a student demonstration. Henry Hezekiah Dee, 19, worked in a local lumber yard. Two White Knights — James ford Seale, 29, and Charles Marcus Edwards, 31 — were convinced that the two young men were part of a rumored Black Muslim uprising in the area, Edwards said later.
Their information was groundless. They abducted the young black men, took them into a nearby forest, beat them unconscious, and dumped them into the nearby Mississippi river where they drowned. Nearly two-and-a-half months passed before their remains were found. Edwards and Seale were arrested for the murders.
Edwards, a paper mill worker, gave the FBI a signed confession, but his admission of guilt was insufficient to convict him. A justice of the peace threw out the charges without explanation, and the case was never presented to a grand jury. This pattern of law enforcement indifference to Klan-related crimes was repeated throughout the South until federal intervention forced local officials to prosecute the perpetrators of racial violence.
Their murderers were never punished. Nothing enraged Mississippi Klansmen like a Northerner helping blacks achieve racial justice in their state. Michael Schwerner, 24, epitomized the Klan stereotype of a Yankee agitator. The outspoken, self-confident Schwerner was a social worker from New York who came to Meridian, Mississippi, to work with the congress of racial equality in early He quickly earned the enmity of local Mississippi White Knights, and soon they talked openly of killing him.
His efforts to build a freedom School in Philadelphia, Mississippi, provided the opportunity.
Schwerner had developed a working relationship with James Chaney, a black native of Meridian. On Sunday, June 21, their concerns were realized: arsonists firebombed the church, reducing it to a charred rubble.
The Swan House
Schwerner, Chaney and Andrew Goodman, 21, a newly arrived civil rights worker from New York, were on their way from Mt. Price charged Chaney with speeding and arrested Goodman and Chaney on the absurd charge of burning Mt. Now the stage was set for local Klansmen to murder Schwerner and his accomplices. Around 10 p. They had traveled only a short distance when Price, accompanied by two carloads of Klansmen, pulled the men over again.
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The Klansmen drove them to an isolated area where they were shot at point-blank range, one by one. They were buried in a nearby earthen dam. The disappearance of the three men prompted a national cry of outrage. Blacks had been terrorized for decades in the South, but the violence against two white men finally moved the federal government to action.
Mississippi officials never brought charges against the murderers of Schwerner, chaney and Goodman. The Department of Justice accused 19 men of federal civil violations in connection with the incident. Seven were found guilty, but none received a sentence greater than 10 years. Although the U. Armed forces was integrated after World War II, the American South in the s remained hostile to blacks — service members or not.
So when Army reserve officer Lt. Lemuel Penn, 49, left his home in Washington, D. Benning, Georgia, he timed his trip to avoid unnecessary stops. His attempt to escape confrontation proved tragically unsuccessful. While he and two other black army officers were driving back to Washington on July 11, Penn was accosted outside of Athens, Georgia, by a carload of Klansmen and shot at point-blank range. The three assailants were members of a violent Klan group called the Black Shirts.
An investigation implicated the Athens Klansmen in the crime. Later, the Department of Justice brought civil rights charges against Myers, Sims and four other Klansmen. After a lengthy proceeding, which went all the way to the U.
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Supreme court, Myers and Sims were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Their accomplices were set free. On the night of Sunday, March 7, , Americans received a close-up view of the harsh methods employed by Southern law enforcement officers against civil rights activists. News broadcasts that evening showed Alabama state troopers brutally beating participants in a voting rights march as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
It was a critical turning point in the civil rights movement in America.
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Many viewers merely expressed outrage at the incident. Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a mother of five from Michigan, was moved to action.
She traveled to Selma to participate in the struggle for racial equality and soon was ferrying marchers on the road between Selma and Montgomery as the demonstrations in support of voting rights continued. She died instantly. As it became increasingly clear that state prosecutors were unable or unwilling to bring these criminals to justice, the Department of Justice stepped up its use of the civil rights Act to bring charges against the Klan.
Vernon Dahmer was a business and political leader in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, whose success as a farmer, sawmill operator and merchant had earned him the admiration of black and white residents alike. But his outspoken support of voting rights for blacks earned him the enmity of the violent White Knights of Mississippi. For years, the White Knights stalked Dahmer. When the time was right, they planned to burn his home — or kill him, if possible. After Dahmer offered to pay the poll taxes of blacks too poor to register to vote, the Klan decided to strike.
His year-old daughter was hospitalized with third degree burns; Dahmer died from the injuries he suffered in the blaze. During the civil rights Movement, Klansmen expected the support of whites or at least their quiet acquiescence after they attacked civil rights leaders. The reaction to the Dahmer murder was different.
The entire community — black and white — rallied around the Dahmer family and helped rebuild their burned-out house. Local law enforcement officials aggressively investigated the crime. Three Klansmen were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.