Historic Undertaking

The 2011 reunion of civil rights lawyers held special meaning for Portlander Jacob Tanzer.

The reunion focused on the infamous 1964 “Mississippi Burning” case when Ku Klux Klan members murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner on a lonely road in Neshoba County, MS. As grand jury prosecutor, Tanzer started the journey that brought those responsible to justice.

“This was the era of coffee counter sit-ins and Freedom Riders,” Tanzer said in a recent interview.

By 1964, brave African-Americans were fighting Jim Crow laws that had subjugated them for so long. They met with police dogs, lynchings, prison and burnings. Still, the Congress of Racial Equality brought students from around the country to organize voter registration drives and freedom schools. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were part of this effort when they were murdered.

The son of Russian immigrants who had escaped anti-Semitism, Tanzer’s concern for civil rights started early. After graduating law school, he found his way to Washington, D.C., with Robert F. Kennedy’s fight against organized crime. When the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murder investigation went cold, the civil rights division decided to try organized crime methods. Tanzer volunteered and became the grand jury expert on the case.

“The FBI investigated the murders as a civil rights offense but couldn’t get anyone to talk,” Tanzer said. “They decided to ‘create buzz,’ which is what they often do in organized crime cases.”

Buzz meant spreading rumors that prosecutors were ‘in the know’ and arrests were imminent. Experience showed this technique produced informants hoping for amnesty or plea deals.

“We wanted to make someone nervous,” Tanzer said. “Here’s your chance. Save your neck.”

When Tanzer arrived in Neshoba, he found a third-world scene in slow motion.

“The country was rural,” he said. “There were entire counties where you couldn’t buy lunch or see a movie. You’d drive and drive and all you would see were white clouds, red clay and rolling hills covered with cotton plants. You’d see a house of some means and share croppers shacks scattered around – old plantation style. Some had front porches and electricity, and some didn’t.”

As Tanzer talked to potential witnesses and prepared them to testify for the grand jury, he learned about the events leading up to the civil rights workers’ murders.

He learned about the rural African-American Mount Zion Methodist Church. Set among the cotton fields, locals reckoned this fixture had operated since slave days. After secretly meeting with church leaders, Chaney and Schwerner planned to open a freedom school there.

When news of the freedom school leaked, 30 racists showed up at a church business meeting, according to the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School. Armed with rifles and shotguns, they demanded parishioners turn over the “NAACPers.” As congregants fled, many were severely beaten. Later that night, thugs torched and destroyed the church.

Meanwhile Chaney and Schwerner were in Ohio at a National Council of Churches seminar. They returned and visited the destroyed church with Andrew Goodman, a Queens College student they’d met. As they drove to the CORE office in Meridian, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price arrested them on a technicality. When the sheriff released the three from jail later that night, carloads of Ku Klux Klan members followed their car. The civil rights workers were never seen alive again.

“I met cotton farmers, sharecroppers and laborers, often in the hot August sun of Mississippi,” Tanzer said. “We drove the red clay farm roads to find them. I talked with prisoners who had been in jail with Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. I talked to church elders.”

Tanzer met people like Bud Cole, the president of Mount Zion Methodist Church.

“The Coles were relatively well-off,” he said. Their living room was small and spare with children’s high school graduation photos decorating side tables and pictures of John Kennedy and Jesus on the wall.

Although thugs had beaten the Coles as they fled the church during the raid, they agreed to testify. They wanted “to do right by those boys,” Mr. Cole explained.

“All they wanted to do,” he told Tanzer, “was help us.”

The 21 members of the grand jury heard from 125 witnesses who told moving stories about the July 16 church burning, about previous police beatings and about witnessing Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in jail.

“The role of a grand jury is not to determine guilt or innocence,” Tanzer said. “It is to determine if there is enough evidence to charge a person with a crime. It was unheard of in that day to ask a Mississippi grand jury to indict a white for victimizing a black.”

As Tanzer had anticipated, witnesses to the murder remained silent. Still, “the pot was stirred.” Tanzer won indictments related to the civil rights violations of the two black prisoners. Prosecutors promised to be back for more – soon.

“It was a historic moment,” Tanzer said. “As far as I could tell from Department of Justice archives, these were the first civil rights criminal indictments ever, anywhere. The grand jury was unanimous. In the course of proving these two lesser cases, we set a stage.”

Tanzer returned to Portland to become an Oregon Supreme Court justice. He kept close tabs on the landmark case.

As predicted, soon after his original indictments, informers who had abducted Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner came forward. Although a jury indicted 18 people for official conspiracy to deprive the three of their constitutionally guaranteed rights, only seven men received sentences when the case came to trial in 1967. All served less than 10 years. When new evidence reopened the case in 2005, Edgar Ray Killen received three 20-year terms.

“When I first started writing my memoirs, it was to let my kids know what I did during those years,” Tanzer said. “I wanted some avenue by which the people I worked with wouldn’t be forgotten.”

For more information, see We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray 1988, Nation Books, New York.

Polina Olsen is a freelance writer in Portland. Her book Stories from Jewish Portland was published last year by The History Press.

 

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