“Investigation of the 1964 Murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—Case Closed.”
So stated federal and Mississippi state officials this past week in declaring at an end their long attempt to bring to justice all the men who had committed one of the most notorious crimes in modern American history—the murder of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Miss. in June 1964.
Although seven men involved in the murder were convicted in 1967 of federal conspiracy charges, most of the mob of at least 19 escaped justice. Four decades later, however, the Mississippi Attorney General’s office revived the investigation and, based on new evidence, arrested one of the latter, Edgar Ray Killen, the ringleader of the death squad, and charged him with three counts of manslaughter. In 2005, a Mississippi jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to serve 60 years in the Mississippi state prison. He is, at 91, still alive.
The Justice Department decision is only the latest in its long investigation of more than a hundred suspected racist murders in the South in the postwar decades to encounter witnesses holding to past lies or refusals to cooperate, and the time-driven obstacles of witnesses having died or no longer able to reliably remember what they saw and heard, and of pieces of physical evidence having vanished. (Independent scholars said they’ve identified hundreds more cases that also deserve federal investigation.)