They didn’t get a grade, or any class credit. But three Illinois high school students say they earned untold rewards from their yearlong history project on the civil rights movement.
After producing a documentary on the unsolved slayings of three “freedom riders” in Mississippi, the students—Allison Nichols, Brittany Saltiel, and Sara Siegel—took their case to Congress last month. The rising juniors at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnville, Ill., persuaded Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., along with other lawmakers, to introduce a resolution calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the case 40 years to the day after the deadly assaults on James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
The three college students were working to register black voters in Neshoba County, Miss., when they disappeared on June 21, 1964. Their bodies were found weeks later. They had been beaten and shot.
Nearly two dozen members of the Ku Klux Klan were arrested in connection with the slayings, but no one has ever been convicted.
The students’ film—which they entered in the annual National History Day program, for which they qualified for the national finals last month—features their moving interviews with key law-enforcement officials who worked on the case, the victims’ surviving family members, and even one of the suspects.
“When we were looking for ideas for our research, this case was something that is still significant today and a part of history that still hadn’t been closed,” said Ms. Nichols, 16.
“We also made a connection because it was an example of young people dedicating themselves to a cause,” she said.
Edward Ray Killen, a Baptist minister who was one of the suspects in the case, told the students that the activists were viewed as dangerous by white residents in Mississippi. Although he did not admit having had a role in the killings, he told them that he had no remorse over the deaths, said Barry Bradford, a social studies teacher at Stevenson High who worked with the students.
The project did not win at the national competition, held June 13-17 at the University of Maryland. But they were honored at a commemoration of the anniversary of the slayings in Mississippi on June 21. They also have shared their research with activists and law-enforcement officials in the state.
—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week