The Mississippi Democrat's bill would provide federal recognition of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner a half-century after members of the Ku Klux Klan executed them on a dark road.
For 44 days 50 years ago, FBI agents tromped through thickets, bogs and backwaters of Mississippi, before finding the trio's bodies buried 15 feet beneath an earthen dam.
The June 21, 1964, murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, who were working to register blacks to vote as part of the Freedom Summer campaign, fueled support for the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Overcoming A Terrible Legacy
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner became some of the most visible martyrs of the civil rights movement, and the FBI's "Missing" poster bearing their faces became an indelible image of the era.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation referred to this investigation as Mississippi Burning (MIBURN), and eventually found the bodies 44 days later. After the state government refused to prosecute, the federal government initially charged 18 individuals but was only able to secure convictions for seven of them, who received relatively minor sentences. However, outrage over their deaths assisted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the early 1960s Mississippi, as well as most of the South, was in total defiance of federal authority over desegregation efforts. Recent Supreme Court rulings had upset the Mississippi establishment, and white Mississippian society responded with open hostility.
Bombings, murders, vandalism, and intimidation were tactics used to discourage black Mississippians along with their Northern supporters. In 1961 Freedom Riders, who challenged institutionalized segregation, encouraged social unrest among the colored underclass. In September 1962, the University of Mississippi riots had occurred, which initially prevented James Meredith from matriculating.
And there's now precedent for awarding the gold medals to the civil rights activists. In September 2013, a Congressional Gold Medal was issued honoring four girls killed in the Klan's 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church.