How the Mafia fought racism in Mississippi,
On the of June 21st, 1964, the young civil rights workers were driving on Highway 19 in Neshoba County, Mississippi when then were suddenly and unexpectedly chased by a police car and a number of cars manned by local members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The three men; James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (middle pictures). They were forced off the road, removed from their cars, beaten, and then brutally shot dead. Overnight their bodies and car disappeared.
The murder of the three civil rights workers sparked tremendous outrage among the American public. Even supporters of segregation were shocked by the brutality. Worse yet, little was done about the murders at first. Most of the local police and sheriff’s department were manned by members of the KKK. Many were directly responsible for the men’s deaths. Under the direction of President Lyndon Johnson, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover started a massive investigation involving over 150 FBI agents. The investigation involved a massive search, the questioning of hundreds of persons of interest, and the offering of a $25,000 reward for any information on the murders. Regardless, the people of Neshoba County kept their mouths shut. Hampered by the wall of silence erected by Neshoba citizens and law enforcement, the FBI had few leads and no tangible evidence. With the president breathing down his neck for results, J. Edgar Hoover reached into his bag of extra-legal tricks to make a break in the case. Sometimes it takes fire to fight fire, and in 1960’s America there was only one organization that was more ruthless and bloodthirsty than the KKK; La Cosa Nostra, the Mafia.
The FBI contacted mafia don Carmine Persico (bottom left picture), head of the notorious Colombo crime family in New York City. The FBI offered Persico some… favors, if Persico used some of his resources to aid the FBI. Persico lent the FBI a few mafia thugs, as well as his head enforcer Gregory Scarpa (bottom right picture). Affectionately known as “The Grim Reaper”, Scarpa was a career mafia assassin who also had a talent for getting tight lipped people to talk.
One of the men behind the murders was a TV salesman and klansman named Lawrence Byrd. One day a man with a peculiar accent entered his store and bought a television. After buying the TV, Byrd offered to carry the box to the man’s car. As he loaded the TV into the man’s backseat, the man came up from behind him and bopped him on the back of the head with a blunt object.
When Byrd awoke, he was in a secluded location face to face with Gregory Scarpa, who had an offer he couldn’t refuse. What followed was a “questioning session” that involved rounds of beatings and other torture. After a few hours of questioning Byrd told all. Some say Byrd spilled the beans when Scarpa lit his blowtorch. Others say it was when he force a gun barrel down Byrd’s throat. Regardless, the information gleaned from Byrd amounted to a 22 page confession, giving away the location of the bodies, the men who conducted the killings, and the men who were responsible for ordering and covering up the murders.
The bodies of the three civil rights workers were found buried at a levee on a local man’s farm. In addition, the bodies of 8 other murdered black men were discovered. Byrd’s information lead to the FBI uncovering more information, which led to the arrests of 21 men. Many of the men were respected local businessman, politicians, and law enforcement officers, all were members of the White Knights of the KKK. Because Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the men, they were charged with the federal crime of depriving a person of their civil rights (through murder). The men were prosecuted in federal court, with most being convicted guilty. Unfortunately, they were only charged 3-10 years for their crime, none served more than 6. The last to be prosecuted was Edgar Ray Killen, a KKK organizer who helped plan the killings. He was convicted of three counts of murder and sentenced to 3 consecutive 20 year prison terms in 2005.
Gregory Scarpa became an FBI informant during the 70’s. In the 80’s an assassination attempt was made on him, which caused him to go on a massive killing spree during a war between the Colombo and Genovese families. He was arrested and charged with murder, racketeering, theft, weapons trafficking, and a number of other charges. He died in prison due to complications from AIDS (from a bad blood transfusion) in 1994.
Mob boss Carmine Persico is currently on year 17 of his 139 year prison sentence.
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