Students Redo Civil Rights History

kkk Sarah Seigal, Britany Saltiel, and Allison Nichols
CBS
A trio from an affluent suburban Chicago high school played a role most students don't get: They helped change history.

"I don't think that it hit us that this was actually happening until we got the call that Killen was arrested," says Allison Nichols, a student at Stevenson High School.

Killen is Edgar Ray Killen. The former Klan leader was arrested in January for the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. And, as CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports, some of the credit goes to the students and their school project.

"I think we really helped draw attention to the murders and really just kind of sparked it," says student Britany Salatiel,

The students' documentary wasn't the first to look into the killings. Hollywood's version, "Mississippi Burning," came out 17 years ago.

But without a blockbuster budget, Sarah Seigal, Salatiel and Nichols looked into questions that the film left hanging, spending hundreds of hours pouring over documents, watching old news footage, talking to investigators and even interviewing Killen himself.

"We kept hearing that they were trying to undercover recruit the young blacks for the communist movement," says Killen in the documentary.

"After talking with the family members of the boys who were murdered, the project was no longer something we did for school," says Siegel.

So the sophomores pushed on. Despite receiving threatening e-mail to mind their own business, the young girls lobbied the governor of Mississippi and members of Congress to take another look at the murders.

Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis knew the three slain civil rights workers and after meeting with the students helped to draft the congressional resolution to reopen the case.

"These three young women they had a vision," says Lewis. "They got in the way, and sometimes you have to be creative to get in the way."

The students never got a grade or school credit for the project but say they did learn a valuable lesson.

"If you care about something and if you are affected by something, it is not enough to just sit there and talk about it," says Nichols. "You have to take action you have to see what you can do to help."

The teenagers will be watching Killen's trial closely, hoping their history project will finally end in justice.