On June 21st 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The three civil rights workers were among hundreds of students who volunteered to work in Mississippi Freedom Summer, registering Blacks to vote in a famously violent culture. SNNC had been trying to register African-American voters in Mississippi since 1961. Out of 70,000 attempts only 4,700 citizens had succeeded. SNNC reasoned that if white students faced the same intimidation, the Mississippi voter registration drive would get national attention.
When organizers lost touch with the three young men who were investigating a burned out black church near Philadelphia, they became worried and spread the news.
Dale Minor and I flew to Mississippi to cover the story for Pacifica. Dale had been with Martin Luther King when he calmed the streets and pool halls of Birmingham, Alabama, after the Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15th, 1963. Dale had learned how to work in the South.
Our plane landed outside the capital of Jackson. We gathered our bags and walked to the Hertz rental agency. The man behind the counter was instantly hostile. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” We told him we were reporters. “Now what would you find interesting to report here in Mississippi?” he asked. We mentioned three civil rights workers who had disappeared four days earlier. He assured us they had run off and hid in order to create an incident.
We drove the seventy miles to Philadelphia and checked into a motel off Main Street in the center of town. The next morning, we drove to the burned out ruins of the Mt. Zion Methodist church in Longview, twenty miles away. The last three miles were down a narrow, dirt levee road.
We were poking through charred timbers, when a sheriff’s car drove up and parked behind us. The deputy asked us who we were. We told him. He was courteous but brusk. He complained that he was unable to protect civil rights workers, because there were so many of them and they were acting in such provocative ways. Dale asked about the deputation of 150 Neshoba County white men the day before. The deputy explained that they were there to protect the local citizens against any and all outsiders. He added that he wouldn’t want to protect outside agitators anyway. Then suddenly he said he had to go and drove off.
Dale and I were nervous and decided to leave as well. We turned toward the church for one final picture. Dale saw the dust of a car roaring down the dirt levee road toward the church. We ran back to our rental and climbed in as a four door sedan pulled into the circular drive behind us. Four men piled out carrying iron pipes and baseball bats. Dale drove out to the road. The men behind us returned to their car and pulled their doors closed as the driver started his engine.
Dale asked if we should go left toward the unknown or right, back the way we had come. I said left but he turned right, despite the danger of a backup car blocking the narrow levee road the men had arrived on. It was the correct decision. We later learned the other direction led to a dead-end in a notorious redneck enclave, likely the homes of the men in the car following us. They peeled off as we roared into the outskirts of Philadelphia.
Somewhat shaken, we drove back to the motel, left our recording gear and went to the press information office that Mississippi had set up to handle reporters. Art Richardson a tall, rugged looking man wearing a Western hat, scowled as soon as he saw our credentials and suggested we go down the street to a coffee shop where he would meet us. It was a dark place with dirty windows and formica booths, peeling aluminum strips along the sides, jukeboxes on the wall and high, red plastic seats that stuck to your clothes.
Art slipped in. “Now I been hearing some things about you boys and they ain’t too complimentary,” Art began. We asked him what he meant, and as he talked on it became clear that his information was based on private letters and telephone conversations between me and people in Mississippi. He’d also read articles Dale had written, including one in an obscure Berkeley journal, The Liberal Democrat, and he was able to quote from them in detail. He knew about the SISS hearings into Pacifica’s loyalty and the FCC’s delay in granting Pacifica’s licenses because of possible “communist infiltration.”
“Now Mr, Minor, I’ve seen that you is a veteran of the Korean war, but that you was busted twice for insubordination, failure to follow orders, and busted back to private, so you was a real trouble maker in the army, is that correct Mr. Minor? And how did you manage to get an honorable discharge?”
“And you Mr. Koch, I’ve seen correspondence between you and a Mr. Clinton Jencks of Berkeley, California, a well known member of the communist party.” It was the kind of detailed information Richardson could have only have gotten from the FBI. “That kind of behavior may be okay in New York City, but it ain’t okay in Mississippi.”
Dale asked him for the bottom line. Was Richardson trying to frighten us? “Not at all,” he said. He was simply warning us that our job of reporting was going to be uphill all the way. I asked him if he’d shared his information about us with anyone else in town. “Some folks asked me what I knowed about you boys, and I done told them.” Did this include members of the White Citizen’s Council? Richardson said he didn’t know, but admitted that he had no idea what the people he had told had done with the information.
He advised us not to walk on the streets of Philadelphia without a police escort. “I’d say it would be best if you boys were out-of-town by sundown.”
I later learned that Richardson, like many in the Mississippi Highway Patrol, was both a racist and militant anti-communist. He was well-known for announcing that the 1961 freedom rides had been “planned and directed by the communists.” “We have known for some time that the communist party is behind the freedom rider movements,” Richardson said.
- This Little Light Part 4 – The Invasion. Almost a thousand young people from across the United States came to Mississippi in the summer of 1964. Before most arrived, three civil rights workers disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It would be a tough summer. Governor Ross Bernett warned, we “have been witnessing communist front organizations, demonstrators, sit in strikers, hoodlums and left wingers, freedom riders and such groups as that. Well thank God most of them go to jail when they come to Jackson.”