Mississippi Burning: The life and death of my cousin, Andrew Goodman

June 21 is the 50th anniversary of the death of my cousin, Andrew Goodman. He was one of three young voting rights activist murdered by the KKK while trying to register blacks to vote in the summer of 1964.

Andrew was only 20 the night he was murdered on June 21, 1964 on Rock Cut Road, a day after he arrived in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He was excited and eager to get to work.

Andrew, who was related to my mother’s side of the family, grew up in New York City as one of three sons of a liberal Jewish household on the Upper West Side. I was older and lived in Boston. But after his death, I spent many hours at family gatherings and in correspondence with his mother and his brother, David. My great regret is that we were never able to be close during his short life and before he became a symbol of the civil-rights movement.

In the 1960s, Andrew’s mother, a well-established clinical psychologist, and his father, a civil engineer, entertained famous visitors to their home including Alger Hiss and the blacklisted actor Zero Mostel. His grandfather, a successful attorney, hired the first black lawyer to work in a white New York firm. So Andrew came by his activism by osmosis.

He attended a progressive private school in New York and then Queens College to satisfy a fervent desire to go into the world of drama. But activism became a priority in his life. Sadly, his murder would later be the basis of a famous 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.

On April 1964, Andrew listened to a speech by New York congressman and civil-rights activist Allard Lowenstein describing a strategy to bring civil rights to Mississippi, which he described as “the most totalitarian state in America.”

That speech propelled Andrew to the Deep South, far from the idyllic life of summers in the Adirondacks. He set out to change the world with his two young friends, Michael Schwerner, who was white and James Chaney, who was black.

In Mississippi, they went to the Longdale Mount Zion Methodist Church, which had been bombed by the Ku Klux Klan because it was going to be used as a Freedom School.

It was June 21. Earlier that day, his last day of his life, Andrew wrote a postcard home:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I have arrived safely in Meridian, Miss. This is a wonderful town, and the weather is fine. I wish you were here. The people in this city are wonderful, and our reception was very good.

All my love, Andy

It wasn’t long before the three young men, obvious outsiders, were arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. I’m sure my cousin and his friends were relieved when later that evening they were fined $20 and released from the Neshoba County jail and ordered to leave the county. But they did not know Price had notified his Klan associate Edgar Ray Killen, who plotted with others to stop and kill the three men in a desolate road.

Price followed them to the edge of town, where he pulled them over, sounding his police siren. He held them until the Klan murder squad arrived. The KKK took the three young men to an isolated spot. My cousin and Schwerner were fatally shot in the chest; Chaney was beaten before he too was shot to death. The Klan drove the car the young men had driven up in into a swamp and set it on fire. They buried the bodies in an earthen dam on Old Jolly Farm.

When U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy heard of the volunteers’ disappearance he sent the FBI to investigate. It took 44 days to find them. It was not until Aug. 4 that Andrew’s parents received the terrible news. The bodies had been found. By then, I was 35 and had moved to Coral Gables. But Andrew’s murder shocked the entire family.

On Oct. 13, Ku Klux Klan member James Jordan, confessed that he had witnessed the murders and agreed to cooperate. Eighteen men, including Sheriffs Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Price, were arrested and charged with violating the civil rights of the three young men.

However, Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the killers for murder, a state crime. The U.S. Justice Department later charged 19 people and the Mississippi Burning trial began. Seven of the men were found guilty and sentenced to three to 10 years in prison, considered by those outside Mississippi as a slap on the wrist for the first-degree murder of three young men.

One of those who escaped a guilty verdict was Edgar Ray Killen, a self-declared Baptist minister who worshiped at the altar of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 2004, the case against Killen was reopened. He was arrested on three counts of murder in 2005. This time, Killen was found guilty of manslaughter on June 21, 2005 — 41 years to the day after the crime. His arrest was part of a broader purge of the South’s segregationist past.

Andrew’s mother, Carolyn Goodman, lived to see her son’s murderer sentenced to 60 years in prison for manslaughter.

After Andrew’s death, his mother established The Andrew Goodman Foundation, which focuses on the work of young people who deal with the social issues of the day. They produced a documentary Hidden Heroes, which seeks an alternative to the media’s negative portrayal of youth.

If Andrew, James and Michael are to be remembered this day, it should be by an informed electorate. Every citizen must vote if our democracy is to survive. Our votes should be a memorial to those who died in the effort to secure this right.

Make Andrew Goodman your cousin. Make Michael Schwerner and James Chaney your brothers, and let them know that you got their message.

William E. Silver is a retired Miami orthodontist and deputy chief of forensic odontology at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department. He lives in Coral Gables.