One of my most popular blog stories was titled A Police Chief during times of change. The story was about Houston’s Police Chief Herman Short. (still available to read on this blog) Short served as Chief during the 1960’s, a time in the South when traditional white values were being challenged and law enforcement leaders were measured by their response to the tides of change.
It is tempting to compare such leaders to those who followed 20 or even 50 years later, but doing so gives no context to the times during which they served. A more accurate comparison is with other southern law enforcement leaders of the time. As you read about Neshoba County, Mississippi Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, consider how each man, Chief Short and Sheriff Rainey, responded to change.
Lawrence Rainey was a one-term sheriff in Neshoba County, Mississippi. He campaigned for the job by responding to those traditional southern white values of segregation and keeping ‘negroes’ in their place. During the campaign he said, “I’m the man who can cope with the situations that might arise,” a reference to dealing with the civil rights activism then coming to the south. And “cope with the situation” he did!
Rainey completed eight years of formal education before becoming a mechanic. But, to the detriment of the profession, he soon found his way into law enforcement. In 1959 he was working as a Philadelphia, Mississippi police officer. His reputation was that of a brutal enforcer, especially in the black community. He killed one black man and is reported to have whipped another with a leather strap after stripping his shirt from his back, exacting his own form of justice on the streets of this small Mississippi town that became infamous in the movie, Mississippi Burning.
In 1963 he ran for sheriff of Neshoba County and won. He was known as a tobacco chewing, back-slapping Klansman, whose reputation suggested he supported the status quo in its quest to stop the freight train of change coming to the south. Just months into his term, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwermer, and Andy Goodman went missing after being released from Rainey’s jail.
A quote from the Sheriff at the beginning of the investigation is interesting. He said, “...and if any semblance of violence should seem to be in the making just leave it to the law enforcement officers." Was it a slip of the tongue or a veiled reference to what had already occurred?
|Wright and Rainey|
Not long after that comment, Rainey, his deputy Cecil Wright and 15 other men were indicted in federal court for the murder of the three men. Seven, including the deputy, were convicted, but Rainey was not. Their arrogance was amazing. Shown in the photo above, Rainey and his deputy, display a confident smugness upon their indictment.
Maybe the bravest comment made at the time was by the eleven year old son of James Chaney, who, even before the sheriff was indicted, said publicly, “and I want us all to stand up here together and say just one more thing. I want the sheriff to hear this good. WE AIN’T SCARED NO MORE OF SHERIFF RAINEY!”
Things didn’t go well for the former sheriff after the trial. He moved to Franklin, Kentucky to work as a policeman. But when the newspapers reported his arrival, civil rights activists sounded the alarm, and the offer of a job was withdrawn. Lawrence Rainey never worked in law enforcement again!
“The FBI set out to break me... and they did it.” Rainey said. “They kept me down to colored folks money,” apparently referring to his job as a security guard at a trailer park. He died in 2002 at age 79.
Lawrence Rainey didn’t accept a changing society, and as a result, lost the only career that apparently ever made him feel important.