​50 years ago: When all eyes were on Mississippi

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to demonstrators and members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party outside the 1964 Democratic National Convention, in Atlantic City, N.J. Displayed are sketches of the slain civil rights volunteers - Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner - who were found murdered in Mississippi.

Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of a crime that shocked a nation already torn by segregation, social injustice, and violence against blacks and advocates of civil rights for all.

On June 21, 1964, James Chaney (a black Mississippian), Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (both whites from the North), who were volunteering in the Freedom Summer Project to register blacks to vote, were ambushed on a rural road, beaten and shot.

Their bodies were not found for another six weeks.

Their disappearance led to massive manhunt in the state, involving the FBI and 200 sailors from the Naval Air Station at Meridian. On August 4, the remains of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were found buried under an earthen dam on the property of a KKK member.

While the search was being conducted, CBS News broadcast an hour-long special report, anchored by Walter Cronkite, which covered the missing men; the voter registration drive; the climate of fear experienced by blacks in the Deep South; and the reactions of white politicians, businessmen and law enforcement to the Freedom Summer Project.

You can watch excerpts from "The Search in Mississippi" by clicking on the video players at left.

That summer also marked the passage and signing of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the following year, the Voting Rights Act -- sparked, in part, by the murders (which were later dramatized in the 1988 film, "Mississippi Burning").

However, justice for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner was a long time in coming.

In 1967, seven men (including a deputy sheriff) were convicted on federal charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the three murdered men; none served more than six years. Seven others were acquitted.

The jury deadlocked in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, a reputed Ku Klux Klansman and part-time preacher, when a lone juror refused to find a preacher guilty.

In June 2005, Killen was tried again on three counts of manslaughter and convicted. Observers saw the conviction of the 80-year-old as a compromise -- Killen was found not guilty of murder by the jury of nine whites and three blacks -- but he was sentenced nonetheless to three consecutive 20-year terms.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.