On June 21, 1964, three young men volunteering to register African American voters during Freedom Summer were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan and police after they began investigating the burning of a local church. Over half a century later, one day before the 52nd anniversary of the deadly attack on James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the Mississippi attorney general declared the case officially closed.
David Goodman, whose older brother was found buried in a ditch with his friends, and Clarence Jones, a civil-rights leader who was Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal lawyer, responded to the news with anguish. “This case will never be closed until it heals the wounds that have divided our country,” Goodman told me. “You can’t move past a wound while it’s open, even if you cover it up with a bandage.”
Although he would not share the details of their conversation, Goodman said Mississippi’s attorney general, Jim Hood, called him a week before the announcement was made. “When I heard about the FBI closing the case, I was not really surprised,” he said. He and his relatives have advocated deeper investigations into this and countless other acts of violence committed during the 1960s, including testifying before Congress leading up to the passing of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. The measure directed the Justice Department to work jointly with state authorities to revisit unsolved murder cases from that era. It’s set to expire at the end of fiscal year 2017, although in April, reauthorization bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate with bipartisan support.
“The case was about Americans murdering Americans because they want to be Americans,” Goodman said. He sees the majority of white Americans who lived through the 1960s as complicit in the killings—they’re guilty of perpetuating hatred, he said. “Society does not want to try itself, so how do you close a case? It doesn’t make sense in the greater scope of things,” he said. “The whole country was explicitly and implicitly involved in this thing we call racism, which is really economic advantage and capitalism looking for cheap labor—and that has separated the haves and have nots.”