CHICAGO – Hundreds of miles from a Mississippi courtroom where a suspect pleaded innocent Friday to the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers, three suburban Chicago high school students received accolades for their role in publicizing the case.
Teenagers Sarah Siegel, Allison Nichols and Brittany Saltiel spent more than a year working on a 2004 documentary about the killings. The project included a rare phone interview conducted by their teacher with the man arrested Thursday, reputed Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen (search), and helped generate a congressional resolution last June asking federal prosecutors to reopen the case.
"I was really happy for all the families who I knew had been waiting for this for 40 years," the 17-year-old Siegel said. "It was also a little saddening to know that it took 40 years for justice to start working."
Congressmen including Rep. John Lewis (search), a Georgia Democrat and civil rights activist who knew the three slain workers, credit the students for working to keep the case in the spotlight and unearthing new details.
"I was very inspired and very moved by the work that these three students brought before us," Lewis said Friday. "I think they were crucial in bringing us to this point."
In the summer of 2003, the girls met with Barry Bradford, their teacher at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, to discuss possible projects for the annual National History Day competition. They stopped him after his first idea: telling the story of 21-year-old James Chaney, 20-year-old Andrew Goodman and 24-year-old Michael Schwerner.
The three young men were participating in Freedom Summer 1964 (search), an effort to register blacks in the South to vote, when they were beaten and shot to death, allegedly by Klansmen. Their ages, not much older than the girls, struck a chord.
"We just thought something about those three men and their dedication to the movement really stood out," said Saltiel, 16.
The students pored over court transcripts and interviewed former prosecutors and investigators, witnesses, family members of the victims and government officials for their 10-minute documentary. They also sought out Killen, now 79, for a phone interview.
Bradford decided to conduct the interview after a Justice Department official expressed concern about the girls having to testify in the event Killen said something incriminating.
Killen didn't implicate himself, Bradford said, but he did say the reason civil rights workers were so hated at the time was because people thought they were recruiting blacks to be communists.
Soon after that interview, Bradford said his and the girls' names were posted on a white supremacist Web site that accused them of trying to skew the truth.
"I think it was truly a little startling to them to realize that there are still remnants of that archaic mind-set," Bradford said.
The students say the most rewarding part of their project was meeting with family members of the slain men, including Goodman's mother and Chaney's brother, who called them "superhero girls."