PHILADELPHIA, MI — A cloud of mystery still surrounds the events of the Deep South’s most notorious nights: the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers who were chased down a rural lane by a gang of Klansmen, beaten, shot and buried in a dam.
The case riveted America, prompting Lyndon Johnson, the President, to send in the FBI. The men’s bodies were discovered 44 days later.
Since the 1964 killings a question has swirled around the case: Who told Neshoba County Deputy Cecil Price the trio were in the area that day?
"That phone call set off a chain of events which ultimately culminated in the murders on Rock Cut Road," said Lindon Ratliff, professor at Mississippi State University-Meridian, who presented a paper on the subject at last week's National Civil Rights Conference in Philadelphia.
FBI records obtained by local paper The Clarion-Ledger show three separate Klansmen-turned-informants for the FBI told agents that Price or the Neshoba County Sheriff's Department were tipped off by someone here in Longdale, an African-American community off Mississippi 19 nine miles east of Philadelphia.
Around lunchtime June 21, 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner arrived at the ashes of what once had been the Mount Zion Methodist Church, investigating what had happened. They spoke with church members, including Ernest Kirkland and Cornelius Steele, and interviewed Bud Cole, who had been severely beaten by Klansmen.
Minutes after they turned onto Mississippi 19, Deputy Cecil Price arrested them. That night, he released them into the hands of waiting Klansmen, who killed and buried the trio.
"You can conclude without a doubt there was an informant in the Longdale community," Ratliff said.
Back in 1964, the FBI investigated the informant question. One Longdale resident told the FBI that Clarence Hill was an informant for Sheriff Lawrence Rainey.
Hill, now 86, told The Clarion-Ledger that accusation is a lie.
He said it is true he and Rainey used to log together in the woods of east Mississippi. "Rainey was mean, but he and I were like brothers," he recalled.
He said the only reason people thought he was an informant was that he and Rainey happened to leave the courthouse one day about the same time.
Hill told the FBI that on the day the civil rights workers were killed, he and his family went to visit his mother-in-law at 9:30 a.m. and didn't return until 4:30 or 5.
But his wife, Vennie Hill, told the FBI she went to church at Mount Zion and returned home at 11 a.m., staying there.
And his daughter, Mary Ann Hill, told the FBI she saw the station wagon go by the house at that time.
Her recollection about seeing the station wagon was the same as William Howard Steele, but he added another detail.
In his interview with the FBI, he told agents he was visiting a friend's house when he saw the station wagon carrying the civil rights workers go down the road toward the Longdale community between 12:30 and 1 p.m., according to FBI documents. Ten minutes later, he saw Hill's truck driving in the opposite direction, Steele told the FBI.
After hearing a recitation of his interview with the FBI, Clarence Hill last week replied, "That's accurate."
Asked how his family could have been with him at his mother-in-law's when his wife and daughter told the FBI they were home, he replied that he went to his mother-in-law's by himself.
Later on, he said FBI agents asked him to drive to Jackson on the matter. When he got there, he said an agent told him they had been wrong about him.
"They found out I was no informant," he said. "An agent told me, 'Go on home. You ain't guilty of nothing.' "
He said the FBI told him the real informant was someone else in the community, Cornelius Steele, who has since died. Steele is a relative of William Howard Steele.
On the evening of June 16, 1964, Cornelius Steele was among the church members confronted by Klansmen, who believed civil rights workers were at the church that night.
"They wanted to know where 'them white boys' were," recalled Steele's son, John.
A group of Klansmen from Meridian beat church members; another group from Philadelphia did not. After the beatings, Klansmen burned the church.
Four days later, the civil rights workers arrived at their house and talked to his father, John Steele recalled.
Hardly anyone had telephones in this community then, including his family, he said. "They had come to see Daddy about the future of the Freedom School."
His father wouldn't have contacted the sheriff's office to say the three civil rights workers were there, he said. "We knew the danger."
Clarence Hill, who served then on the Mount Zion board, called the 1964 burning of the church "awful. That's a house of God."
He still remembers those fearful days when Klansmen burned a cross at the entrance to the community here.
"Everyone was afraid," he said, but "I wasn't afraid of them. They knew my sons and I wouldn't take no foolishness. We had guns, and we still got 'em."
In those days, "a lot of people lost their lives," he said. "The devil was a loose, but God protected us, gave us better times. The shedding of blood causes mighty things to happen."