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After 50 Years, Obama To Honor 3 Civil Rights Activists

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At the White House today, President Obama will present the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 19 Americans. Three young men killed by the Ku Klux Klan 50 years ago will be awarded posthumously. NPR's Debbie Elliott has their story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were part of a movement in 1964 that drew hundreds of civil rights activists from around the country to Mississippi to register black voters. Just as Freedom Summer was getting underway, the three went missing in Neshoba County after a run-in with local law officers. It got the attention of the nation and of President Lyndon Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Senator?

SENATOR JAMES EASTLAND: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Thank you, sir. The president.

ELLIOTT: LBJ pressed Mississippi Senator James Eastland in this phone call from June 23, 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Damn, we got three kids missing down there. What can I do about it?

EASTLAND: Well, I don't know. I don't believe there's - I don't believe there's three missing.

ELLIOTT: Segregationist white leaders treated it as a hoax, but the bodies of the three young activists were found more than a month later, buried in an earthen dam. They'd been beaten and shot to death. David Goodman says his older brother, Andrew, who was 20, had only been in Mississippi for a day when he met his fate.

DAVID GOODMAN: The Ku Klux Klan, who didn't want to see any changes and who wanted to keep the black population out of the voting booth, murdered my brother and James Chaney and Michael Schwerner and others before them with impunity.

ELLIOTT: Most of the murderers were never brought to justice. But national outrage over the crime helped speed passage of federal civil rights protections. David Goodman says the Presidential Medal is an official acknowledgment that their work helped to make the country a more complete democracy.

GOODMAN: It took 50 years, but here we are on the 50th anniversary, and it's a freedom medal.

ELLIOTT: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were both from New York and were white. They were working with a young black man from Meridian, Mississippi - James Chaney. He'd been scouting local churches willing to host voter registration drives. His sister Julia Chaney-Moss remembers him as a practical joker who had a serious side when it came to the unequal treatment of African-Americans in his home state.

JULIA CHANEY-MOSS: I remember often his question to my mom - why do we have to live this way? That became his motivating factor.

ELLIOTT: He was well aware of the risks, she says.

CHANEY-MOSS: Before going to bed, my mom would always ask him - she would always say, you know you can get killed for what you're doing? And he would tell her, yes, ma'am. I know.

ELLIOTT: Chaney-Moss says the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the first and only concrete validation from the government of the choice made by these three young men and others since. Michael Schwerner's widow has mixed feelings about today's ceremony.

RITA BENDER: It would be more significant if I could look at these 50 years and say, boy, we are in a much better place today.

ELLIOTT: Rita Bender says the Freedom Summer story is only one part of a larger struggle that's been underway since before the nation was formed and one that is ongoing.

BENDER: I think it's terribly important to understand that this struggle is not over. Voting rights have been seriously eroded.

ELLIOTT: Bender says, for her, Mickey Schwerner's Presidential Medal of Freedom should belong to all generations who have fought and will fight for democracy for all. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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