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50 years on, Mississippi still burns

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Freedom RidersIt was a quest for freedom that cost them their lives.

Saturday marks 50 years since James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered while trying to help African Americans in Mississippi register to vote during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964.

That summer, hundreds of young, white northerners had descended on the staunchly segregationist state to help with civil rights organizing and black voter registration drives. On June 21, Goodman, Schwerner and Mississippi native Chaney set out from the town of Meridian to investigate a church burning — they never returned.

Their disappearance and deaths (at the hands of a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob) sparked nation-wide outrage, shifted national attention to the brutal resistance to granting blacks equal rights in the south, and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It was a significance not lost on Schwerner’s wife, even as federal agents searched for her still-missing husband. “It's tragic, as far as I'm concerned,” Rita Schwerner told reporters, “that white Northerners have to be caught up in the machinery of injustice and indifference in the South before the American people register concern.” And she he took it one step further: “I personally suspect that if Mr. Chaney, who is a native Mississippian Negro, had been alone at the time of the disappearance, that this case, like so many others that have come before, would have gone completely unnoticed.”

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