The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson

An excerpt from Volume 8.
The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson

Tuesday, June 23, 1964

They’ve just disappeared from the face of the earth.
—Lee White to President Johnson

They can’t disappear forever, can they?
—John McCormack to President Johnson

James Earl Chaney was 21 years old. Michael Henry “Mickey” Schwerner was 24. Andrew Goodman was 20. Chaney was a black Mississippian. Schwerner was a white New Yorker. Both men were seasoned activists with the Congress of Racial Equality ( CORE) in Meridian, Mississippi, a small city near the Alabama border. Goodman was a white volunteer from New York on his first trip to the Magnolia State, one of approximately 800 mostly white, mostly northern students coming down to assist in voter education, freedom schools, and other organizing activities as part of Freedom Summer. Mississippi officials referred to the situation as the “Invasion of Mississippi by Northern College Students.” [1] Adding to the wariness of many white Mississippians, Schwerner and Goodman—and many of the student volunteers—were Jewish. On June 21, two days after the Senate passed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, these three men kicked off Freedom Summer by investigating a church-burning in the Neshoba County community of Longdale. They expected to be back in Meridian by 4:00 p.m. (cst). [2] At approximately 3:30 p.m. (cst), however, they were arrested for allegedly going 65 miles per hour in a 30-mph zone and went to jail in nearby Philadelphia. [3]

A few hours before that incident, on the West Coast, President Johnson concluded a carefully orchestrated political trip to California, with the ending slightly tarnished by a hotel scheduling conflict that forced the relocation of 13-year-old Lyle Peskin’s Bar Mitzvah. Johnson took the opportunity, however, to shake the boy’s hand and greet his family as he left for the airport. President Johnson arrived back at the White House a little before 6:00 p.m. (edt) and then shared dinner and a late-evening swim with Lady Bird, journalist William S. White, and two key White House aides. [4] While he relaxed in the nation’s capital, tragic events were unfolding in the rural South. The Mississippi midnight would lead to the first major domestic crisis of his presidency. Like Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy before him, Johnson would be forced to redefine federal-local relations in the United States. [5] How would the federal government respond to the failure of local officials to provide equal protection of the laws and to adequately maintain law and order? [6]

On this fateful night, President Johnson turned in at 11:15 p.m. About 45 minutes later in eastern Mississippi, the three civil rights activists paid a $20 bond for Chaney on the speeding charge and were released from the Neshoba County Jail. Escorted out of town by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and a Philadelphia patrolman around 12:30 a.m. (edt), Chaney directed their 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon along state Highway 19 toward Meridian. Within minutes, Price reappeared behind them, this time with a carload of violent white extremists at his rear. In an apparent attempt to outmaneuver Price, Chaney veered onto another road, Highway 492. Price soon turned on his flashing lights, and Chaney pulled over. The deputy transferred the activists to his cruiser and motored back to Highway 19. Not far ahead, he and the caravan made a left onto a dirt lane known as Rock Cut Road. Here, according to the FBI interviews of two conspirators, the gang that had followed behind Price took Schwerner, then Goodman, and then Chaney out of Price’s car and shot them to death at close range. A few men placed the bodies back into the activists’ Ford station wagon, with FBI witness Doyle Barnette claiming that his contribution was merely wedging Chaney’s lifeless foot into the vehicle. The men buried them six miles southwest of Philadelphia in a new earthen dam at the Old Jolly Farm, a piece of property owned by a truck driver and entrepreneur. [7] Over the next six weeks, their disappearance became the central focus of the FBI’s “Miburn” investigation, the shortened name for a case better known as “Mississippi Burning.”

That same night in Williamsburg, Virginia, Prime Minister IË™smet IË™nönü of Turkey settled into the first night of his first visit to the United States since John Kennedy’s assassination. IË™nönü was in political turmoil at home and had flown to the United States to enlist Washington’s support for his efforts to protect Turks on the Greek-dominated island in the Mediterranean. [8] In Massachusetts, 32-year-old Senator Edward Kennedy lay immobilized in a hospital room, confined to a Stryker spinal support machine after a tragic airplane crash on June 20. In response to this latest family tragedy, Robert Kennedy was debating whether to abandon his own plans to run for the U.S. Senate in New York. Half a world away, the U.S. presence in Saigon was undergoing two major changes. Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge was handing off his diplomatic duties to Maxwell Taylor, who would leave his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Feeling the pull of the Republican Party in an election year, Lodge had decided to return to the United States to assist Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton’s recently announced bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Meanwhile, General William Westmoreland was in the second day of his almost four-year command of U.S. military operations in Vietnam, taking over the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam ( MACV), from General Paul Harkins.

It is not clear when Lyndon Johnson first heard about the missing civil rights activists, but news of their disappearance began moving slowly toward the White House when Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman failed to check in promptly with fellow activists on the night of June 21. [9] Around 7:30 p.m. (edt), staffers of the Council of Federated Organizations ( COFO)—a coalition of civil rights organizations in Mississippi that had been the principal organizer of Freedom Summer—started making calls to local jails, including the one actually holding their colleagues. None of them proved fruitful, however. [10] At midnight (edt) on June 22, according

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week