Before 'Freedom Summer,' A Wave Of Violence Largely Forgotten
This summer we commemorate the Freedom Summer participants who faced death — and in some cases were murdered — for trying to transform the racial landscape of America. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the bodies belonging to James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers who were brutally killed while trying to register blacks to vote in Mississippi. Their disappearance had drawn the national news media and federal investigators to Neshoba County, Miss.
That lethal terror was not reserved for civil rights activists alone: Groups like the Ku Klux Klan exacted violence against black people who they thought were acting above their station. But those stories rarely captured much attention outside of the communities in which they happened. The shooting of Richard Joe Butler was one such case that was largely forgotten to history, even as its ramifications continue to haunt the people involved.
Mississippi Before Freedom Summer
The early months of 1964 were an especially dangerous time in Mississippi. On the Feb. 15, after a rash of beatings and suspicious deaths, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan made their well-known debut in Brookhaven, Miss., led by the infamous Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers. The White Knights and other Klan groups unleashed a level of violence not seen in the South in decades — most notoriously when White Knights members in law enforcement killed Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. Their bodies were found in an earthen dam on a farm that belonged to a local Klansman.
In the months leading up to the formation of the White Knights, Klansmen amassed forces in parishes and counties on both sides of the Louisiana-Mississippi border and concentrated their activities in southwest Mississippi. Local sheriffs in southwest Mississippi reported 16 abductions and beatings of black men in February of 1964 alone, and all of them were in the area of Natchez.
It didn't take long for the mob violence to become deadly. Late on Feb. 28, Klansmen ambushed Clifton Walker and shot him to death near the neighboring town of Woodville.
Many of the early targets for this terrorism weren't activists at all: Blacks who dressed too finely (or were too friendly with whites, or drove too nice of a car) were seen as "uppity" — a designation that could be a death warrant by itself.
The Men With Hoods
It was during these days just before Freedom Summer that Richard Joe Butler, a black farmhand in Kingston, Miss., almost lost his life. Butler, who was 25, had been working on and off for a white couple, Louisa Catharine and Hayward Benton Drane Sr. Those odd jobs turned into steady work, and Butler became a trusted part of the Drane household.
In March, two cars carrying several hooded white men tried to run Butler and his wife, Money, off the road as they drove home from the store. They narrowly escaped, and afterward went to the home of the Dranes' daughter-in-law, Bobbye Jean Drane, who gave Richard a pistol to carry for protection.
On a Sunday morning in April 1964, Butler said in his affidavit, he was heading over to the Dranes' to feed their cows. He noticed a Ford with two men driving by, and as they passed, they turned around and glared at Butler. Billy Woods was behind the wheel. Ray Walters was in the passenger seat. Later that morning, when Butler was at the Dranes' home, he saw the same two men drive by in the same car, and they made the same gesture — turning around and fixing Butler with a glare.
A little while later, as Butler was trying to start his truck at the Dranes', a man with a black hood appeared next to his car, pointing a shotgun through the driver-side window at him. Butler grabbed the barrel of the gun and pushed it hard back toward the hooded man, causing him to fall backward. Butler quickly ducked in his seat and rolled up the window. He reached over to roll up the window on the passenger side, but an automatic shotgun was pointed through that window at him. Another man in a black hood held the gun.
"Take it easy, buddy boy," one of the men said. He told Butler to get out of the truck.
The hooded men marched Butler out of the garage and directed him to head around toward the back of the barn, where five or six more men wearing black hoods were waiting for him.
"Bring him around here," Butler recalled hearing. "The son of a bitch! We're gonna kill him! We been waitin' on this a long time!"
The two men who shepherded Butler by shotgun were now standing close to him. "I throwed out my arms and caught the two men ... and shoved them in front of me," Butler told investigators. "Then I turned and broke and run."
But before Butler could get very far, the hooded men opened fire. Birdshot struck him in the upper body. Buckshot hit him in the leg. He fell to the ground.
Louisa Drane, who was inside the house, thought the sound was a truck backfiring. Then there was screaming. "Save me! Save me!"
Drane went to the door and saw Butler lying on the ground. The hooded men were gone.
Drane helped Butler into the back seat of her car, and told him to lie down flat while she drove, so that the assailants would be less likely to see him and try to stop her on the road to the hospital in Natchez.
A Stymied Investigation
The next day, two highway patrol investigators and a county prosecutor questioned Butler at the hospital. He identified Ray Walters, Billy Woods and William Bryant Davidson as three of the hooded men. He had known Walters and Davidson since they were younger, and was able to identify all three men based on the combination of distinctive boots that each man wore, their physical build and their voices.
But the highway patrol investigators paid especially close attention to Butler's relationship with Bobbye Jean Drane. Drane had given Butler the gun after he and his wife were run off the road, but she and Butler had also been seen riding together in a truck. This was the kind of interaction — palling around with a white woman — that could turn a black man like Butler into a target. In reality, he was merely helping her haul bricks. But the investigators were so suspicious of their relationship that when she visited Butler in the hospital after he was shot, the investigators secretly tape-recorded the visit. They eventually decided that the two were not sexually involved.
But the pistol that Drane gave Butler and the appearance of interracial intimacy may have been enough to make him a target — especially because the pistol had belonged to her uncle, Ed Fuller. Fuller, a notorious Klansman and mobster, had a rap sheet dating back to the 1940s, including many acts of racial violence.
One of Fuller's girlfriends at the time was a woman named Barbara Jean Pike, a prostitute who had turned informant for the Highway Patrol. According to a Highway Patrol report obtained by the Cold Case Project at Louisiana State University, she told state investigators later that year that Fuller asked her on the day of the shooting to provide an alibi for him.
"I want you to tell the law if they come here that you and I were hunting on the Louisiana side [of the Mississippi River] this morning," Fuller reportedly said to Pike. "That damn nigger had my pistol and he is in the [Adams County] hospital and is still alive. Ain't no damn nigger gonna fool with any of my family and get by with it."
It was several days after the shooting that Billy Woods — the man who had been driving the white Ford — was arrested and charged with assault and battery with intent. He was then released on $1,000 bond.
The Highway Patrol also investigated other suspects who were seen near the scene of the shooting. One had allegedly made threatening statements about Butler. But the local district attorney, Lenox Forman, interfered with the investigation. According to a Highway Patrol report from that April, Forman "sternly recommended" that investigators refrain from picking up suspects for questioning and from searching Billy Woods' residence for the weapon used in the shooting. This was in keeping with the way these crimes were treated in Mississippi at the time; prosecutors and members of law enforcement, many of whom were sympathetic to groups like the Klan, would stymie investigations into racial violence, even when the culprits were well known.
Despite Forman's intercessions, it briefly looked like the case would move forward. In late October of that year, Fuller and a man named William Bryant Davidson were arrested and charged with assault and battery with intent to kill in connection to Butler's shooting.
The charges did not stick. Adams County Judge Robert Bonds dismissed the charges against Fuller and Davidson, at the recommendation of Lenox Forman and another local prosecutor.
And while there were still charges pending against Billy Woods, they were never pursued. The prosecution of Butler's shooting, which had focused on Butler's personal life and was held up by local officials, had sputtered out.
Remembered Heroes And Forgotten Victims
The nation was riveted for weeks by the search for the three civil rights workers' bodies. Federal agents had been dispatched to Mississippi, and Navy divers looked for their bodies in the swamps and rivers. But other racially motivated killings that happened around the same time received scant attention. During the massive search for Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, sailors made a horrifying discovery: They found the badly decomposed bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, two black men who had been beaten, tortured, tied to engine blocks and thrown into the Mississippi River while they were still alive. But media and federal attention quickly turned back to finding the missing civil rights workers.
Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner, had a theory as to why her husband's disappearance and death became a national story. "We all know that this search with hundreds of sailors is because Andrew Goodman and my husband are white," Schwerner Bender said at the time. "If only Chaney was involved, nothing would've been done."
While Butler's shooting isn't very well-known today, it was well-documented. Mississippi Gov. Paul B. Johnson was a staunch segregationist — he was a major opponent to James Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi — but he and other officials were worried that the rise of Klan violence reflected badly on Mississippi. As a result of their concern, state investigators made active investigations into many of the incidents of racial violence that occurred in southwest Mississippi in 1964, and details about many of the lesser-known cases can be found in the state and national archives. The Butler shooting, in particular, was also investigated by the FBI and was revisited in 1965 when the House Un-American Activities Committee briefly turned its attention from the threat of Communism to the Ku Klux Klan.
Butler is 75 today, and the shooting left him with injuries that have dogged him for a half-century. "I never will forget that morning," Butler told me in a telephone interview from his Riverside, Calif., home. "I was shot four times with shotguns. ... I've got one piece of lung and one lung. I can only stand up for a little while. I have to go sit down. If I don't, I fall."
But there are psychic scars from the attack, too. He said he still looks over his shoulder in fear of random violence 50 years later, and says he doesn't go anywhere, including the bathroom, without a gun. "If I sit out on the stoop, this is right where I can reach and get it. It's been that way for ... years," Butler said. "I'm gonna protect me."
"I hadn't even voted then," Butler told me. "At that time, you wasn't allowed to vote. You didn't do nothing but work."
No one was ever tried for the attack on Richard Joe Butler. Ed Fuller died in 1975. William Bryant Davidson died in 1998. Several others suspected to be involved in the shooting, including men who were known perpetrators in other acts of racial terrorism in the 1960s, have since died as well. Two other men who were suspected in the Butler case are still living.
Ben Greenberg is an investigative reporter and photographer based in Boston. He is a founding member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project. His work has appeared in USA Today, Colorlines, The American Prospect, The Clarion Ledger and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Ben on Twitter.