Three Civil Rights activists were infamously murdered on this day (June 21, 1964), near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were three activists killed during what has been dubbed “Freedom Summer,” that included sit-ins, voter registration drives and protests of Jim Crow laws under segregation.
The three men were in the area to investigate the burning of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which had been a popular meeting place for activists operating in a very dangerous part of Mississippi.
With the help of the local police, the KKK ambushed the men and beat and shot them to death.
The bodies were buried in a dam and covered with a bulldozer, where they remained until they were unearthed 44 days later (along with at least seven other blacks who had gone missing).
The three men’s murders sparked national outrage and helped lead to the passage of The Civil Rights Act in 1964.
A number of musicians also expressed outrage over the incident and their song lyrics reflected their feelings about the state of Mississippi.
Songwriters like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Nina Simone all wrote songs about the climate in Mississippi, prior to the three men’s murders.
After the news of the men’s murders, a number of tribute songs to the students were recorded.
One of the most famous is Simon and Garfunkel’s “He Was My Brother,” which was a tribute to Goodman, who was a student with the pair at Queens College.
This song “In The Mississippi River,” was written by The SNCC Freedom Singers.
The SNCC was a political, civil rights organization, which stood for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Members of The SNCC at one point or another included famous activists like H. Rap Brown, Anne Moody, Julian Bond, Stokeley Charmichael and others.
The SNCC, which had helped organize the “Freedom Summer,” also had a group of singers, known as The SNCC Freedom Singers, to serve as inspiration.
Singers/activists Matt Jones, Cordele Reagon, Charles “Chico” Neblett, Ruthie Harris, Marshall Jones, James Peacock, Emory Harris, Bertha Gober, Bernice Reagon, Raphael Bentham and a Jewish guitarist named Bill Pearlman were the main members over the key years.
Their work was popular enough to perform at the legendary Newport folk Festival, in the summer of 1963.
It was this group of singers that wrote the lyrics to “In The Mississippi River.”
During a concert performance on November of 2010, the group explained how the song was written.
The members of the SNCC freedom singers arrived in Mississippi, and were stunned to see many students who attended their previous concerts.
“We woke up in the morning and they kept telling us Goodman and Chaney had been lost,” said group member Matt Jones. “We knew within our hearts that they were probably dead…we thought they were in the river. And while we were driving away from there, my brother wrote ‘In The Mississippi River.’ We kept hearing over the radio how bodies were being found in the river. So Marshall Jones wrote the song in the Mississippi River.”
“In The Mississippi River” has been covered throughout the years, most notably by Mavis Staples, on her 2007 album We’ll Never Turn Back.