January 09, 1989 12:00 PM

It was one of the most horrific crimes of the civil rights era, a cold-blooded triple murder near Philadelphia, Miss., that exposed how deeply racism had eaten into America’s soul. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner: Twenty-five years ago, in the infamous summer of 1964, their names became an incantation, an invocation of martyrs. And now we have a movie, Mississippi Burning—a Hollywood fictionalization of the case, short on the facts but long on cathartic outrage.

The whole truth of that time may be beyond the power of any movie to tell. That summer, called Freedom Summer, Mississippi was in a state of siege. Hundreds of civil rights workers, most of them Northerners, had poured into the state in a massive drive to register black voters. Most white Mississipians resented the invasion, and some of them began a campaign of terror, beating blacks and firebombing black homes and churches.

On June 21, after they had visited the charred ruins of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal church near Philadelphia, civil rights workers James Chaney, 21, a black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Mickey Schwerner, 24, and Andy Goodman, 20, were hauled into jail on a paper-thin charge of speeding. Released that night into a Klan ambush, they were later found buried in an earthen dam.

For 44 days, hundreds of FBI agents combed the countryside before a paid informant led them to the corpses. Twenty-one men were initially indicted on a federal conspiracy charge—among them the sheriff of Neshoba County, Lawrence Rainey, and his chief deputy, Cecil Price. Seven men, including Price, were eventually convicted of depriving the victims of their civil rights by murdering them (see box, page 40).

Philadelphia, Miss., is not, as a whole, pleased about Mississippi Burning. Many of those involved in what townsfolk call “the case” still live in the area. Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, for instance, returned from prison into the arms of the Philadelphia Country Club. A defendant who was acquitted has become one of the county’s wealthiest citizens. On the pages that follow are portraits of some of the people whose lives were touched by the case—witnesses from a time that will never be quite behind them.

Two Who Survived

Bud Cole, 82, has walked with a cane ever since he and other congregation members were beaten by the whites who torched the Mount Zion church 24 years ago. The night riders had come to the church looking for the man who had recently met with parishioners about voting rights: Mickey Schwerner. “They came on us like thieves in the night,” says Cole’s wife, Beatrice, 82. “If they’d given us a warning, it would have been a hot night, ’cause black folks will fight back.” A farmer who owned his land, Bud Cole considered leaving Mississippi after the beating, but “I told him I wouldn’t follow him,” Beatrice says. “I was going to stay here as long as there was tea in the pot.” Nevertheless the movement for civil rights at Mount Zion went “kind of kerplunk” after the fire and the murders, she says. Freedom Summer’s sponsor, the Council of Federate Organizations (or COFO) opened an office in Philadelphia, and some of the Coles’ neighbors, such as Earnest Kirkland, 55—Schwerner’s main local contact—were active in its voter registration efforts for a while. (Today, movement leaders say, Mississippi has one of the highest number of registered black voters in the country.)

The Mount Zion church was rebuilt, in brick, in 1966, and many of those worshipping with Kirkland and the Coles one recent Sunday said they can’t find it in their hearts to hate anyone for what happened that summer—it might “keep us out of the Kingdom.” But Kirkland, for one, is not ready to make nice with Cecil Price, the deputy sheriff who arrested the civil rights workers and held them in the Philadelphia jail long enough for the Ku Klux Klan to arrange the ambush. Spying Price at a convenience store a few years back, Kirkland says, “I left my groceries on the counter and walked out.”

One Who Spoke Out

“You don’t choose pain or discomfort,” says Florence Mars, one of the few Philadelphians to testify against the Klan before a federal grand jury that summer. “But afterwards, you look back and realize you wouldn’t have done it any other way.” Mars is 65 now and suffers from Bell’s palsy, but, scurrying around in Levis and sneakers, she seems as hell-bent for principle as ever. “I did not suspect that I would be vulnerable to the Klan,” says Mars, a local aristocrat—a peer in Philadelphia’s Poplar Avenue elite—whose family settled the county. But soon after her 1964 testimony, a Klan boycott forced her to sell her stockyard. And in 1965, she says, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey arrested her for drunk driving while she was leaving the traditionally high-spirited county fair and jailed her for the night. Rainey’s breach of class custom caused Mars great shame and jogged local sensibilities. “People were able to see that if it happened to me, it could happen to anyone,” she says.

Mars did not run or cower. She wrote a book. Published in 1977, Witness in Philadelphia described a community whose silence in the face of evil she likened to that of Nazi Germany. “I’ve just heard the definitive statement as to where all the decent people were,” Mars says of their absence at the time of crisis. “They were in the bank, counting their money.” As for the less decent ones, “I’m sure Cecil Price doesn’t need my empathy, but he was just a young boy [of 27] then, doing what he thought he was supposed to do. The ones who go to the pen are usually the poor people.” Some sympathy has flowed in Mars’s direction as well. “You can tell,” she says, “when you’re working in your yard and someone asks you who you get to trim your trees.”

A Conspirator’s Loyal Wife

In Mississippi Burning, the Deputy Sheriff’s conscience-stricken wife tells FBI agent Gene Hackman of her husband’s complicity in the murders and helps to break the case. Reality wasn’t anything like that. When told of that plot twist in the movie, former Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price’s wife, Conner, replied, “That’s really fictional.” Then she added, “I don’t care what [people] think. I know who I am.”

Conner, who says she’ll see Mississippi Burning “when it comes on TV, maybe,” has been making “mean milk shakes” at soda fountains around Philadelphia for most of her adult life. These days, she also does bookkeeping at Ha-mill Drug Store. “Conner is Conner,” people will tell you fondly. She agrees: “Loud! I am loud, I’ll go along with that.”

Conner, 47, met Cecil 32 years ago at a church social and married him a year later. She was 16, he was a few years older. She has stood by him ever since, and her friends in Philadelphia have stood by her. After Cecil was sentenced in 1967 to six years (he served four) for conspiracy, Philadelphians took up a collection so that she could visit him in a Minnesota prison. “Don’t you love your husband?” she asks by way of explaining this steadfastness. “Doesn’t he make you mad sometimes? But you still love him?” When the Prices’ only child was born—soon after the bodies were unearthed—they named him Cecil Ray Price Jr.

Conner did not tell her growing son that his father was in prison. “What would you tell a child?” she says. ” ‘Daddy’s off and he’ll be back.’ ” But one day a playmate spilled the beans, and little Cecil came home and asked if his daddy was in jail. Conner picked up an envelope with Cecil’s return address and said, “This is a letter your daddy wrote us. Jail is spelled J-A-I-L. Does that say jail?” Explanations were saved for Cecil’s return. “We did it together,” says Conner. “It wasn’t hard. We just told him the truth. I kept all the newspapers. It was always there if he wanted to read about it—as far as I know, he never did.” For her part, Conner says she has never asked Cecil what happened on that Sunday night when, according to the indictment, he joined the ambush party. “Never.”

Cecil Jr., now 24 and a city fireman, never knew the sort of segregation his father had fought to maintain; by the time he started first grade, all of Philadelphia’s schools had been integrated. After prison, Cecil Sr. held a series of jobs—driving an oil truck, repairing watches—before going to work as a safety officer for the prosperous trucking firm owned by Olen Burrage. (Burrage, in whose dam Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were buried, was charged but acquitted.) In at least one way, he has changed: Conner confirms that her husband—whose Klan associates used to call Mickey Schwerner “Goatee” because of his subversive facial hair—now sports a beard.

“We’re just normal, everyday people,” says Conner. Saturday nights, she and Cecil take in dinner and a movie in nearby Meridian, where Conner bowls on Thursday nights with a team called the Southern Belles. “You didn’t ask,” she says, “but, yes, we do have blacks in the league.”

The Integrated Generation

Attorney Fenton DeWeese, 39, and telephone cable repairman William (Pete) Talley, 36, were youths at the time of the murders. Fent is white and Pete is black, but both were affected by the case. Brought together by civic concerns, they have become friends.

Like many well-to-do Mississippians who came of age in the ’60s, DeWeese at first looked on the Klan as a joke, vaudeville. “If we heard there was a cross burning, we would jump in our cars and drive out to laugh at the people in their clown suits,” he recalls. Fent’s father, Pete DeWeese, who owned one of the big local lumber mills, did not condone his son’s teenage joyriding—to him the Klan was a contemptuous rebuke to the leadership of prominent families like his own.

Fent grew up on Poplar Avenue amid the silence of decent people. Yet he says of the case, “I have seen a lot of people in my age group affected by it. They [the victims] were part of our lives. Their blood was shed here.” Some of DeWeese’s peers left the community. Andy Yates, now a director in L.A., made a documentary while a film student about how the case had affected his friends; Dick Molpus, son of another big sawmill operator, is now Mississippi’s secretary of state, one of “yuppie Governor” Ray Mabus’ band of progressives in the state capital.

DeWeese listened to the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa at Mississippi State, and later returned to Philadelphia to marry his hometown sweetheart. As the town’s public defender, DeWeese represents many poor black clients. Last July, Governor Mabus appointed him to the state parole board, and DeWeese says he plans to run for public office. “People expect me to be a liberal, so I try to live up to their expectations,” he says. “I’ look on it as being for social justice.” “Fent is just like me,” says Talley. “He’s not necessarily a liberal, he just believes in what’s right.” Talley is head of the county NAACP and a spokesman for Philadelphia’s black community (28 percent of Philadelphia’s 6,434 population). “At first I didn’t want to join the NAACP,” he says, “because I didn’t like the name, the ‘Colored’ portion of it.” But he had little choice: The civil rights heyday of the ’60s left behind no other local activist organization. As a teenager, Talley was outraged by the case, though the reaction of many of his black friends was, “If you do something, certain things happen,” he says. These days, he encounters a similar resignation whenever he tries to rouse the black community against discrimination or for unionization of their minimum-wage jobs: The prevailing attitude, he says, is, “Things are better, don’t rock the boat.

“Racism is alive and well, but it’s not my number-one priority,” says Talley. “Drugs, teen pregnancy and parents’ indifference are a lot more debilitating than racism.” Talley has taken the sometimes stodgy local NAACP in unprecedented directions: He’s offering a reward for turning in drug pushers and is trying to lure kids into a free after-school tutoring program.

But it’s difficult to persuade black school children to study when their most popular role model is a football hero: local phenom Marcus Dupree, who was born one month before the murders and played on the Philadelphia High team with Cecil Price Jr. After suffering a career-ending injury in his second season in the now defunct U.S. Football League, Dupree collected on his multimillion-dollar Lloyd’s of London insurance policy and returned to Philadelphia, married his high school girlfriend, bought a Ferrari, and now tools around the Southeast promoting popular music concerts.

Last year, when a false rumor circulated that Dupree was about to buy one of the cabins—all owned by whites—at the Neshoba County Fairgrounds, KKK was spray-painted on a vacant cabin. “It was just a warning,” explained one fairgoer.

Chaney’s Daughter

Angela McCoy Lewis, 24, says it was “really strange” to sit in black history classes at her integrated high school in Meridian and listen to a cursory lesson on the martyrdom of James Chaney. “Some parts of me wanted to stand up and yell, ‘This is my father!’ ” she recalls. But, growing up, Lewis told only her closest friends that she was James Chaney’s daughter. “I didn’t want to be known just as his child,” she says. She also feared “negative attention—from anyone, black or white. During high school I felt it would have been an embarrassment for my father to have an illegitimate child.”

Instead, Lewis may be her father’s vindication. She was born to Chaney’s teenage girl friend, Mary Nan McCoy on June 11, 1964, just ten days before his murder. Her mother never spoke of him—perhaps, Angela suspects, because she was ashamed not to have known him better. “My father never saw me,” says Lewis. “I’ve been pondering in my mind why.” But she knew her identity early on from James’s mother, Fannie Lee Chaney, who made her feel “very much” part of the family and continued to send her presents after the Chaneys moved to New York. (The history of James Chaney’s younger brother Ben offers a disturbing footnote to the case. Aged 11 at the time of the killings, Ben had a troubled time at a progressive school and later spent 13 years in prison for being in a car that was used in a murder spree that left three white people dead.)

Lewis’ singing voice won her a scholarship to Meridian Junior College. But she dropped out two years ago to help support her mother, a waitress. Lewis now manages a fast-food restaurant called Mr. Cook and serves as pianist, gospel soloist and choir director at several local churches. She hopes to return to college to complete her work for a communications degree.

In the last few years, Lewis has also begun to go public as James Chaney’s daughter. “I try not to get too emotional about it,” she says, though “I’ve often wondered what it would have felt like to have someone I could say to, ‘Dad, I have a problem.’ I’ve felt extremely cheated.” It was difficult for her, in the post-segregation era, to really understand the fervor of the cause he died for. Lewis went through school with whites, is a boss to whites at the restaurant and lives in a mostly white neighborhood with her husband, Charles Lewis, a Meridian policeman. All of her six-year-old son’s playmates are white. So it may be a challenge—if a welcome one—for Lewis one day to explain his historic legacy to her three-month-old baby. His name is James.

The FBI Agent on the Case

John Proctor, 62, ought to be a hero. He’s the man on whom Gene Hackman’s powerful Mississippi Burning portrayal of a tough-knuckled FBI agent is loosely based. As the principal Mississippi FBI agent on the 1964 murders, Proctor squeezed from a member of the shooting party the confession that cracked the case. Retired from the bureau in 1978, Proctor now runs a successful detective agency in Meridian. On the office wall, his framed FBI badge hangs next to an autographed picture of actor Wayne Rogers, who played him in CBS’ 1975 two-part docudrama about the case, Attack on Terror. Yet Proctor will not be photographed and is reluctant to be quoted about the killings.

“I don’t need it,” says Proctor. “I run a business.” He also breakfasts most mornings with a group of Meridian businessmen whose attitude toward the new movie is, “Why don’t they leave all that alone,” Proctor says. Though it has managed to elude the ignominy of Philadelphia, 36 miles to the north, Meridian figured prominently in the case. Meridian was James Chaney’s hometown and COFO headquarters. It was also the staging ground for the murders, more than half of whose alleged participants were Meridian residents.

A big, loose-limbed Southerner, Proctor grew up near the Mississippi line in Reform, Alabama. He logged 10 years on the Soviet espionage detail at the United Nations in New York before returning to the South in 1962 as Meridian’s senior resident agent. At the peak of the Philadelphia investigation, hundreds of agents were encamped in or near Neshoba County, but it was Proctor’s local Klan contacts that broke the conspiracy of silence. He worked on Jimmy Jordan, a local beer-joint proprietor, over a series of interviews and finally wrung from him a blow-by-blow account of the murders.

“I’m not a hero—I did a job,” says Proctor, who still occasionally sees the men he helped convict. “I don’t call them friends, but they were always polite and honored my position.” He sometimes bumps into Cecil Price on business. Proctor says that if Alton Wayne Roberts—who, according to prosecutors, pulled the trigger on all three victims—”walked in right now, he’d come over and shake my hand.” As for Mississippi Burning, “It’s going to be about as popular around here as a turd in a punch bowl,” he says. “The sooner the movie’s over with and gone, the sooner I fade into obscenity.” Then he laughs. “Obscurity is the word I want.”

Sheriff Rainey

Former Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, 65, one-time nabob of Neshoba County, now keeps order at the Matty Hersee state charity hospital, directly across Meridian’s West Eighth Street from the Mr. Cook that Chaney’s daughter manages. Now a security guard, he comes on like a big, friendly verb-busting country boy. Rainey was acquitted of all charges and has never been accused of being at the murder scene. Yet as Cecil Price’s boss, he has been tainted with the crime.

Rainey’s wife, Gladys, took to drink after the case, they divorced, and eventually she died of a brain tumor. Rainey remarried and was working as a security guard at a local IGA grocery store when CBS’ Attack on Terror first aired in 1975. Bomb threats against the supermarket led to Rainey’s dismissal.

Rainey says he is unconcerned about the latest movie. (Like the early TV movie, it reverses Price and Rainey’s personalities. “In real life,” says one Philadelphian, “Cecil was the loudmouth, pushy type. Lawrence was real quiet like and reserved.”) “I don’t think it’s going to hurt like the other one,” he says. That may be because his current boss—”He’s been better to work for than any white company”—is a black man, E.E. McDonald, owner of McDonald’s Security Guard Service. McDonald, claims Rainey, “said to me, ‘I done made an investigation on you, and I know that all you had to do was forced on you.’ ” Rainey blames “the news media” for his poor reputation. “They tried to make it that I hated the black people, and it was just because I had to shoot two,” says the ex-sheriff, whose office was investigated by a grand jury for police brutality. “Anyone I mistreated in law enforcement made me do it in order of fulfilling my job and duties…. You got trash in all colors.”

“If we as Christian people expect to meet our maker, we are going to have to help each other,” McDonald, a practicing Baptist minister, says of his hiring Rainey. “Sure I caught a lot of flak…. [but] the way Mr. Rainey feels about me and my family, I’m like his brother. We are brothers according to Christ.”

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