Portland lawyer recalls Mississippi killings 50 years ago

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jacob Tanzer, retired associate justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, goes through old photos in his home office.The murders are half a century old now.

But for Jacob “Jake” Tanzer of Portland, the memories generated by the federal investigation of the deaths of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi are everlasting.

And the murders also changed a nation.

Tanzer, then a 29-year-old lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, said neither he nor the other members of the investigative team knew what would emerge from their work.

“I knew it was the right thing to do,” Tanzer says, recalling those events.

“I had these feelings — and I know my colleagues did — that we were in the midst of something historic that was bigger than this case, and the case was an important part of whatever that was. Losing it would set things back. Winning it would add to it, whatever it was. But we could not define it then.”

The chain of events was set in motion on June 21, 1964, when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing. They were there as part of the Mississippi Summer Project, which enlisted student volunteers to help blacks register to vote, teach them about their rights, and prepare for white resistance. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee took the lead.

The project was described in that day’s New York Times, whose story concluded: “No one can predict the outcome.”

At that time, an estimated 5 percent of blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi, which had the largest percentage of blacks among the states.

The strategy behind the project was outlined by Allard Lowenstein, who a few years later organized the anti-Vietnam War movement for the presidential candidacy of Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

“He said black people getting killed (in the South) had no effect,” Tanzer said. “But if one of these white kids is killed, the nation would not tolerate it. Freedom Summer did help a generational change in the attitudes of young people; I do not want to take away from that. But it did not change much in reality in the South.”

Chaney was black, and from Mississippi; Goodman and Schwerner were white. Their deaths would change a lot.

When they were reported missing, the FBI initially resisted getting involved.

Director J. Edgar Hoover was unsympathetic to civil rights groups, the matter appeared to be local — the FBI did not want to clash with state and local agencies — and the legal basis for federal intervention was weak. But Hoover’s bosses — President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was running for a full term, and then-Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach — prevailed upon him to do so.

“When the FBI went in, it went in full force,” Tanzer said.

FBI agents discovered the burned station wagon in which Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were riding a couple of days after their disappearance. However, their bodies did not turn up until 44 days later, when a tipster led FBI agents to uncover them deep within an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss.

Autopsies determined that all had been shot.

But the FBI did not know who committed the murders — or who in the local sheriff’s office had tipped off the killers that the trio had been released from the county jail after being detained on a traffic charge. It was the last time they were seen alive.

“The agents could not make the case,” Tanzer said. “That is why the Civil Rights Division decided to convene a grand jury.”

Tanzer steps in

by: COURTESY OF JACOB TANZER - Jacob Tanzer as a young lawyer visiting the Ole Miss campus in 1967.Tanzer became a lawyer for the Department of Justice in January 1962, when he moved from Portland to Washington, D.C.

But he worked in the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, whose lawyers met regularly with then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who took a special interest in their work. Kennedy had been chief counsel to the Senate committee investigating labor racketeering before his brother, President John F. Kennedy, named him attorney general.

Tanzer became an expert in grand juries and what he described as “stirring the pot.”

“One of our techniques in a major case, when we found we could not do much, was to call a grand jury to set a buzz about what we were doing,” he said.

It would set off speculation about how much federal investigators knew — and might get witnesses to cooperate with their investigation, because grand jury proceedings were


So Tanzer was transferred to the Civil Rights Division, and he and the other members of the investigative team headed for Meridian, Miss., in late summer of 1964. Among them were his team leader, Bob Owen, and John Doar, the No. 2 lawyer in the Civil Rights Division, who would eventually prosecute the case.

Doar returned to Washington, but the rest of the team traveled through Mississippi, where signs along the highway proclaimed, “You Are Now in Federally Occupied Mississippi.”

Tanzer said a couple of other impressions remain from that first day.

Owen had insisted on a stop at the Mount Zion Methodist Church, where there was a pile of ashes and concrete steps leading to what had been the front porch. The church had been one of the centers of civil rights organizing until arsonists torched it a week before the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, who had met with church members there.

To Tanzer, it resembled a tombstone. To Owen, “this is our shrine.”

“We knew that our mission was not just another assignment,” Tanzer said. “It was profoundly serious.”

As they drove off into the sunset and to a Holiday Inn, Tanzer saw black field workers — men and women, adults and children — around a horse-drawn wooden cart piled high with long gray bags of raw cotton they had picked. It and other carts were on the road, the bags to be weighed and the workers paid accordingly.

Tanzer said he could have envisioned the scene unchanged from a century earlier, while slavery was still legal in the South.

“It was a different world — and it is still different, though we have seen enormous changes,” he said.

Building trust

Among the tasks of Tanzer and other investigators was to interview potential witnesses, including blacks, who could tell a grand jury about the background of the case and how the sheriff’s office — with its all-white force — interacted with the community.

Whites referred to the investigators as “mixers,” and Tanzer said it was not a compliment. “The term was on a level with ‘Communists,’” he said.

Blacks had an unequal social relationship with whites, despite the end of slavery a century earlier.

“Coming into their homes, saying I was Jake Tanzer and offering my hand was very unusual for them,” Tanzer said. “We had to build trust and confidence.”

Many were leery about getting involved — including Junior Roosevelt “Bud” Cole, the president of the Methodist church that had supported the voter registration effort — when it meant testifying to a federal grand jury whose members would be mostly white.

But one by one, Tanzer and the investigators persuaded Cole, his wife Beatrice, and others to testify — not directly about the killings, but about what happened to people released from the county jail at night. Some of them were followed and beaten.

Tanzer said their courage was as noteworthy as that demonstrated by the more celebrated civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“People asked us frequently about whether it was dangerous for us to go down South,” he said. “I think none of us thought much about that. We knew we should be cautious — and we were.

“But when you talk about courage, think of those rural black residents being asked to come to a federal grand jury and testify about white people doing wrong. That’s where the courage was.”


About 125 witnesses ended up testifying to a grand jury of 21 white men, one white woman and one black woman convened in Biloxi.

The grand jury returned two indictments. One involved a black prisoner who had been whipped by a belt until he made a false confession. The other was for the arrest of a black man without probable cause that he had committed a crime, and who had been released from jail at night only to be punished by a mob.

Both indictments named as defendants Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a police officer and other suspects in the civil rights murders. They were charged under an obscure post-Civil War law that made it a federal crime for public officials to conspire to violate a person’s constitutional rights.

The law dated back to 1870, when federal troops still occupied the states of the former Confederacy. Tanzer said it had never been invoked before 1964.

Tanzer wrote the indictments. When a grand juror asked whether they were done under the newly enacted Civil Rights Act of 1964 — particularly unpopular in the South — he replied, “This one’s been on the books for a while.”

Neither indictment dealt directly with the murders.

“When we adjourned (the grand jury) without an indictment in that case, we told the press this was a recess and we would be gone for a few weeks before we reconvened,” Tanzer said.

For Tanzer, that recess would be permanent. His ulcers became so bad — they hemorrhaged shortly afterward — that he returned to Portland and resigned his federal job.

Yet his “stirring the pot” ultimately worked the way he envisioned.

Later, some witnesses to the killings told the FBI what happened, and the grand jury indicted Rainey, Price and 16 others late in 1964, based on a conspiracy to deprive Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner of their rights.

“By that time, my colleagues knew the grand jury business and they did not need me anymore,” Tanzer said.


by: COURTESY OF JACOB TANZER - Jacob Tanzer is sworn in as the first director of the Oregon Department of Human Services in 1971 by Gov. Tom McCall, while his daughter Rachel pretends to take a photograph back at the press.Despite the 1964 indictments, the defendants were not tried until 1967, “which was probably fortunate for the case,” Tanzer said.

A U.S. District Court judge sustained misdemeanor charges against Rainey, Price and the police officer, but dismissed felony charges, and all charges against the other nonofficial defendants. But the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the charges in 1966, when it upheld the 1870 law under which they were all indicted.

As it so happened, Tanzer returned to Mississippi in 1967 as a volunteer with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. By that time, because of the Voting Rights Act that Congress passed in 1965 to guarantee federal protection for blacks and other minorities, Mississippi had changed.

Tanzer still has a poster he obtained in 1967 promoting voter registration among blacks.

He visited the Coles, who he had persuaded to testify before a grand jury, and the rebuilt Mount Zion Methodist Church dedicated in 1966. The new church bears a plaque with the names of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

By 1967, Tanzer said, the white establishment decided that instead of looking the other way when violence against blacks occurred, violence was bad for Mississippi’s image.

“The delay of trial for three years made a conviction by a nonsegregated jury possible,” Tanzer said.

During the trial, seven of the defendants — including deputy sheriff Price — were convicted of a federal conspiracy of violating the civil rights of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and sent to prison. It was the first time in Mississippi that a jury convicted white officials or Ku Klux Klan members of crimes against black people or civil rights workers.

Sheriff Rainey was among those acquitted, but Rainey never held public office again after 1968.

Voting rights

Tanzer said the Voting Rights Act, which came about partly as a reaction to the murders, led to real change in the South.

“There was a straight line from this case to the Voting Rights Act and the progress of black people,” he said. “When they got the vote under the law, that was the essential thing.”

Within a year of the law, 60 percent of blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote. Today, Mississippi has the most black elected officials of any state.

So when the U.S. Supreme Court decided on a 5-4 vote a year ago to undercut one of the law’s key provisions — releasing nine states, mostly in the South, from federal clearance of changes in their voting regulations — Tanzer said it was a bad day for the nation.

“The idea that the judicial branch, rather than the legislative branch, decides whether an existing statute is needed or no longer needed is a radical departure from the entire body of law” deriving from a U.S. Supreme Court opinion more than 200 years old, Tanzer said.

While courts decide what the law says, he said, legislatures decide what the laws should be.

“The decision was not conservative; it was not balls and strikes,” Tanzer said. “It was a radical misapplication of the separation of powers doctrine of the first three articles of the U.S. Constitution. Damage to voting rights has already arisen from it, and I suppose we can expect more.”

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