Mississippi Burning

Summer 1964. Hundreds of civil rights volunteers were in Mississippi for a voter registration drive, and three (two white men and a black) were in Neshoba County to investigate the burning of a black church that was to have been used as a base for registering blacks to vote. After briefly detained for speeding one night, the trio drove into the night and simply vanished.

Their bodies were later discovered, and their murder became a defining event of the civil rights era and the plot of the 1988 film ”Mississippi Burning.” The main suspect were the local sheriff, Lawrence A. Rainey (above right), his deputy Cecil Price (above left) and 16 other men, all of whom were allegedly members of the Ku Klux Klan. They were charged with violating the civil rights of the victims.

Sheriff Rainey and seven other men were acquitted. Deputy Price and six other defendants were convicted. The jury could not decide on the remaining defendants. A Klan leader and one other defendant got the stiffest sentences, 10 years in prison. Mr. Price, whom investigators suspected of delivering the victims to their killers, got a six-year term and served four and a half years.

During the trial, LIFE magazine devoted two pages to the above photo made by Paul Reed, which showed defendants hollering and mocking the court. Rainey was seen flamboyantly chewing his tobacco in the picture. Public outcry followed, and when his term as sheriff ended in 1967, Rainey was unable to find further work in law enforcement. He ended his life working as a security guard at supermarkets and malls, and blaming the FBI for preventing him from finding and keeping jobs.