Exactly 41 years after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the state of Mississippi obtained its first homicide conviction in the case. On Tuesday June 21, 2005, 9 white and 3 black jurors convicted 80-year-old Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen of manslaughter for his role in orchestrating the nighttime roadside lynching, which transpired approximately a half-mile from his house. For his crime, Killen received the maximum sentence of 60 years.
Although this was the first state conviction, it was not the first in the case, as federal conspiracy charges had led to prison time for a few of the men involved in the murders. In October 1967 in federal court, an all-white jury convicted seven white men, including Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. Eight others, including Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, were acquitted. The cases of three others—one of them involving Edgar Killen—ended in a mistrial. At the time, no one was brought to trial on state murder charges. Killen’s 2005 trial, like the recent trials of Byron De La Beckwith for murdering Medgar Evers and of Thomas Blanton for killing 4 black girls in Birmingham, has proved once again the epigram of Mississippi’s sage novelist William Faulkner that "The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” While the U.S. government is engaged in a struggle against terrorism worldwide, the Killen case offers a reminder of the realities of racial segregation and the use of terrorism at home to attempt to preserve white supremacy.
In 1964, the disappearance and presumed murder of these activists at the beginning of Freedom Summer captivated the nation and became a landmark moment in the history of the civil rights movement. The attention focused on Mississippi, however, did not stop violence against civil rights activists or black Mississippians. Over the course of Freedom Summer, three other bodies of murdered black men were found, each of them had been lynched (Charles Moore and Henry Dee were found in mid-July in a lake off of the Mississippi River; A young man wearing a CORE t-shirt, likely a teenager named Herbert Oarsby, was found in the Big Black River). There were also approximately 70 bombings or burnings, 80 beatings, and over 1,000 arrests of activists. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) incident report, a single-spaced document that offered brief daily summaries, was over ten pages long.
On June 21, 1964, two days after the Senate passage of the Civil Rights Act and two weeks before President Johnson signed that landmark piece of legislation, a band of white supremacists associated with the Ku Klux Klan and the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department took political matters into their own hands and murdered Chaney and Schwerner—both veteran activists involved in political mobilization efforts, one an African-American from Mississippi and the other a Jewish social worker from New York City that some locals called "Goatee"—and Goodman—one of the idealistic white college students who had arrived in the state the day before as part of Freedom Summer.
The FBI's case became part of their investigation into church-burnings known as MIBURN or Mississippi Burning. A controversial Hollywood film of the same name was released in 1988 (Mississippi Burning; dir. Alan Parker) that stirred further interest in the case, but caused many civil rights activists to shudder in horror at the heroic presentation of the FBI and at the downplaying of black activism in the movement.
Despite the existence of court records, news reports, oral histories, and documents relating to the investigation, the violent events of that summer will never be entirely clear, and students of history will continue to debate the ambiguities of evidence in attempting to understand that muggy, 80 degree Mississippi night. One resource, though, that captures the immediacy of their disappearance and the complications it presented for federal and state authorities--and for activists—is the collection of secret recordings made by President Lyndon Johnson.
Below is an abbreviated timeline of the incident and selected conversations recorded in LBJ’s Oval Office. These materials are from a Miller Center volume, Kent Germany and David Carter, eds., Crisis of Victory: Lyndon Johnson, the Politics of Race, and the White House Tapes.
To listen to the audio press the PLAY buttons or use the MP3, FLAC, or WAV links to download the audio file to your computer. More help on digital audio is available here. Click on the dates to see the President's Daily Diary for those days.
|June 20, 1964||To augment the three year-old civil rights organizing efforts of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the first contingent of Freedom Summer volunteers began arriving in Mississippi after training sessions in Oxford, Ohio. Approximately 250 activists made it to the Magnolia State from June 20-22. One of them was Andrew Goodman, the son of a prominent Jewish family from Manhattan. Before the students left Ohio, they had been briefed by John Doar, a representative from the Justice Department who informed them that the federal government could not provide them with protection and emphasized that local and state officials held the responsibility for maintaining law and order, an ominous assurance given Mississippi's track record for protecting civil rights. In Mississippi and elsewhere in the South, civil rights activists complained bitterly about the lack of federal protection and many believed that Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover was an enemy of the movement (and he certainly had many activists under FBI surveillance, particularly through COINTELPRO, of which some 50,000 pages of documents have been partially declassified by the FBI). A prominent feeling was that the FBI investigated white racial violence when pressed to do so, but those investigations often went little beyond intelligence gathering and thus served little deterrent value to would-be white terrorists. The tactics of Freedom Summer offered a challenge to the Johnson administration. In response, the planned movement of white students into Mississippi had stimulated serious concern in the administration that the situation might become unmanageable. To see two memoranda on the issue see, Robert F. Kennedy to President Johnson, 21 May 1964; and see Douglass Cater to President Johnson, 19 May 1964.|
|June 21, 1964||James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman went to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion Church in the Longdale community in Neshoba County, near Philadelphia, Mississippi. While attempting to return to Meridian, Mississippi, they were arrested for traffic violations and jailed. After being released from jail at 10 pm, they disappeared. When they did not report in by phone as civil rights workers in Mississippi were trained to do, fellow activists began calling local and federal law enforcement officials. Although many feared the worst, none of them knew for certain that the activists had been killed on a rural roadway by a mob of white supremacists in conspiracy with Neshoba County law enforcement officials.|
|June 22, 1964||Mississippi civil rights activists contacted Mississippi-based FBI agents the night before and reached Justice Department official John Doar in the early morning, setting in motion a process to expand the federal presence in Mississippi, although activists believed the government worked too slowly. Additional FBI agents began to be added on the ground around 11:30 am and continued through the night. The lead inspector, Joseph Sullivan, arrived in the early evening. President Johnson had spent a busy day entertaining the Prime Minister of Turkey.|
|June 23, 1964||
LBJ expanded the investigation into the disappearance by prodding J. Edgar Hoover, by seeking advice from Cabinet officers and congressional leaders, and by involving the Defense Department (eventually bringing in hundreds of sailors to scour the countryside, particularly its swampy areas where it was presumed bodies might have been hidden). The President received reports and held meetings throughout the day. Beginning around noon, he turned on his Dictabelt telephone recorders.
Johnson’s first recorded report was with Lee White, a holdover from the Kennedy administration who served as Johnson’s chief aide on civil rights matters. The two discussed how best to respond to James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was one of the chief groups involved in the COFO voter registration campaign and Freedom Summer.
12:35 p.m. to Lee White
LBJ called Lee White, his chief aide on civil rights matters, to discuss how to respond to James Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
President Johnson: I asked [J. Edgar] Hoover last . . . two weeks ago . . . after talking to the Attorney General to fill up Mississippi with FBI men and infiltrate everything he could; that they’re hauling them in by the dozens; that I’ve asked him to put more men after these three kids; that he hauled them in last night.
Lee White: Right.
President Johnson: That I’ve asked him for another report today; that I’m shoving it as much as I know how; that I didn’t ask them to go, and I can’t control the actions of Mississippi people. The only weapon I have for locating them is the FBI. I haven’t got any state police or any constables, and the FBI is better than marshals, and I’ve got all of them I’ve got looking after them. I can’t find them myself—[section closed under the terms of the deed of gift]
~ Edit ~
President Johnson: . . . and that I’ve got—given them already a standing order to stay on it day and night. Now, have you . . . What do they think happened? Think they got killed?
Lee White: This morning they had had absolutely no trace. There’s no sign of the automobile. They have found nobody who’s seen the car or the three people. So, as far as they’re concerned, they’ve just disappeared from the face of the earth.
Over the next four hours, he spoke to the Speaker of the House (twice) and the Secretary of Commerce--southern native Luther Hodges--about the complications of using extensive federal force in the South. He also made several calls regarding campaign issues and received a message from Attorney General Robert Kennedy. At 3:35, he spoke to Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, expressing his reservations about setting the precedent of meeting with the parents of missing civil rights workers:
I’m afraid that if I start house-mothering each kid that’s gone down there and that doesn’t show up, that we’ll have this White House full of people every day asking for sympathy and congressmen too, because they want to come over and have their picture made and get on TV, and I don’t know whether the president of the United States ought to be busy doing that or not.
To Nicholas Katzenbach
Johnson tried to return Attorney General Kennedy’s call, but had to settle for the deputy attorney general. This snippet is part of a 9-minute call.
President Johnson: What do you think happened to them?
Katzenbach: I think they got picked up by some of these Klan people, be my guess.
President Johnson: And murdered?
Katzenbach: Yeah, probably or else they’re just being hidden in one of those barns or something, you know, and getting the hell scared out of them. But I would not be surprised if they’d been murdered, Mr. President. Pretty rough characters.
President Johnson: How old are these kids?
Katzenbach: 20 and 24 and 22.
To Senator James Eastland of Mississippi
Just before 4:00 p.m., the President made contact with arch-segregationist James Eastland, a colleague from Johnson’s Senate days who was a virulent opponent of the civil rights movement. In the call, Eastland, in his thick Mississippi Delta accent, mocked the idea that any violence had occurred and gave voice to a prevalent white southern belief that the disappearance was a “publicity stunt."
Johnson kept Eastland on the speakerphone for the entirety of this conversation, literally shouting into what he called the “squawk box” for over eight minutes.
President Johnson: Jim?
James Eastland: Hello, Mr. President, how you feel?
President Johnson: I’m doing all right. I hope you are. You got a lot of sunshine down there?
Eastland: Need some rain—we need rain mighty bad.
President Johnson: Well, we’re so dry in my country that we’re going to have to sell off all of our cattle if we don’t get rain.
Eastland: Well, I’m in the same shape: got a cotton crop just burning up.
President Johnson: I’ll be darned. I thought you’d be harvesting cotton pretty soon? When is it, July?
President Johnson: I guess they’re harvesting in the valley right now.
President Johnson: Jim, we’ve 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.
President Johnson: We’ve got their parents down here.
Eastland: I believe it’s a publicity stunt. . . .
President Johnson: They say that their parents are here, and they’ve come down to see the Attorney General, and they’ve seen Burke Marshall ,and they’re going to be interviewed by the FBI—the parents. And they’ve got some newspaper people and some photographers with them and a couple of congressmen: Congressman [William] Ryan and this Republican congressman Ogden Reid, whose folks used to own the Herald-Tribune in New York.
President Johnson: They want to come to the White House to see the president, and I told them that I thought that that would be better to let Lee White—who handles matters like that for me—to talk to them, and he’d go up to Ryan’s office and talk to them. I don’t know whether that’s going to be satisfactory or not.
The Attorney General called over while I was out. He thought I ought to make a statement on it. I made one at my press conference this morning. Scotty Reston said, “Mr. President, do you have any information about those three kids that disappeared in Mississippi?” I said, “The FBI has a number of men who are studying it, and we’ve asked them to spare no efforts to secure information and report to us. I’ve had no reports since breakfast, but at that time I understood that the FBI had forces in that area looking into it. Several weeks ago, I asked them to anticipate the problems that would come from this, and they have sent extra FBI personnel into the area. They have substantially augmented their personnel in the last few hours.” And that’s all I said.
Eastland: Well, that’s all right. Now, I’m going to tell you why I don’t think there’s a damn thing to it: They were put in jail in Philadelphia, in East Mississippi right next to . . . the county right next to John Stennis’s home county [Oktibbeha County], and they were going to Meridian. There’s not a Ku Klux Klan in that area; there’s not a Citizen’s Council in that area; there’s no organized White man in that area, so that’s why I think it’s a publicity stunt. Now, if it had happened in other areas, I would pay more attention to it, but I happen to know that some of these bombings where nobody gets hurt are publicity stunts.
This Nigra woman in Ruleville that’s been to Washington and testified that she was shot at 19 times is lying. Course, with anybody that gets shot at 19 times is [amused] going to get hit, and she hasn’t been shot at a time, and nobody’s tried to bother her. They let her sit in on the Democratic, in the Democratic county convention this morning.
President Johnson: Uh-huh?
Eastland: I don’t think there’s anything to it.
President Johnson: Well now, here’s what I’m calling you about as my friend: number one, they said I ought to make a statement. I’ve made this statement, and I think I’ll stand on it. Do you see any need of my going any further?
President Johnson: All right, that’s number one. Number two, they’ve suggested I see these parents. I’ve told them I thought that’d be a bad precedent. I’m going to try to get them to see an assistant of mine and get by with that if I can, so I don’t add to the fuel. Uh, do you . . . you . . . you . . . Don’t you think that’s the thing to do?
Eastland: Sure, and I think it’s going to turn out that there’s nothing to it. Now, I don’t know, but . . .
Eastland: Well, let me ask you this question about these three that are missing: who is it there to harm them? There’s no organ—There’s no white organizations in that area of Mississippi. Who would . . . Who would . . . could possibly harm them?
President Johnson: Well, might have some crank or some nut like . . . They locked [talking over Eastland] a man up in Minneapolis today for saying he’s going to kill me Friday when I go out there.
Eastland: [Unclear] it’ll take a crowd. . . . It’ll take a crowd to handle, make three men disappear.
President Johnson: Well, it depends on the kind of men, Jim.
President Johnson: It depends on the kind of men.
Eastland: Well, there’s nobody in that area to harm them.
President Johnson: They might take a big crowd to take three like you.
Eastland: [chuckling] Ah . . . Well . . .
President Johnson: I imagine it wouldn’t take many to capture me.
Eastland: [continuing to chuckle] Well, I’d run.
President Johnson: All right. Well, now you get that rain for both of us and send it on east when you get through using it.
Eastland: I’ll do it.
From FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover
Almost immediately after, the President received news from the longtime FBI director that seemed to confirm the worst possible outcome. The Bureau had found the burned car of the activists, and Hoover declared his assumption that “these men have been killed.”
In next hour and half, Johnson spoke two more times to Hoover and once more to the Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach, Secretary of Commerce Hodges, Lee White, and Senator Eastland. He also held conversations with the Treasury Secretary about tax measures and the Secretary of State about appointments. Just after 5:30, he sat down with the parents of Andrew Goodman and the father of Michael Schwerner, two congressmen, and the parents' attorney, offering them what Goodman’s mother characterized as his sincere, heartfelt concern. He also passed along the information about the burned car, which the parents allegedly overheard from a Johnson phone call when they entered the Oval Office.
A conversation between the White House operator and an office secretary precedes the call in which they decide to put Hoover on the line before Luther Hodges.
J. Edgar Hoover: Mr. President?
President Johnson: Yeah.
Hoover : I wanted to let you know we found the car.
President Johnson: Yeah?
Hoover : Now, this is not known, nobody knows this at all, but the car was burned, and we do not know yet whether any bodies are inside of the car because of the intense heat that still is in the area of the car. The license plates on the car are the same that was on the car that was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, yesterday, and apparently this is off to the side of the road. It wasn’t going toward Meridian, but it was going in the opposite direction.
Now, whether there are any bodies in the car we won’t know until we can get into the car ourselves. We’ve got agents, of course, on the ground and as soon as we get definite word I’ll, of course, get word to you, but I did want you to know that apparently what’s happened: These men have been killed. Although, as I say, we can’t tell whether there are any bodies in there in view of the intense heat.
President Johnson: Well, now, what would make you think they’d been killed?
Hoover : Because of the fact that it is the same car that they were in in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the same license number is on the outside of the car. Now, as I say, the heat is so intense you can’t tell—on the inside everything’s been burned—whether there are any charred bodies or not. It is merely an assumption that probably they were burned in the car. On the other hand, they may have been taken out and killed on the outside.
President Johnson: Or maybe kidnapped and locked up.
Hoover : How’s that?
President Johnson: Or maybe kidnapped and locked up.
Hoover : Well, I would doubt whether those people down there would even give them that much of a break. But, of course, we’re going to go into that very thoroughly: not only as to the fact as to whether they’re still alive. If they’re not in the car, then they maybe have been killed and their bodies buried in one of those swamps down there.
From Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
While the parents were in the office, Defense Secretary McNamara phoned twice. The second time, Johnson spoke specifically about Mississippi. The recording here begins with Johnson speaking to the families.
President Johnson: [to people in office] Y’all pardon me, but I’m selecting the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of staff and secretary of the Army and gotten them on the way to Saigon and [Henry Cabot] Lodge is coming, out and we’re having all kinds of problems today.
The operator announces that McNamara is on the line.
President Johnson: Mr. Secretary, I’m here with the parents of these boys that have not been heard from in Mississippi since night before last. You have . . . are making available everything that you have to the FBI for, in their rescue and search I assume.
Robert McNamara: Yes, sir, we have.
President Johnson: You be sure now to tell [J. Edgar] Hoover—
McNamara: We have helicopters that are being used at present along with some naval security cars.
President Johnson: Well, you be sure to let them know that every facility of the Department is available to them and see that Hoover knows that and see that he utilizes it to every extent possible.
McNamara: I will, indeed, and we’ve had people working with Burke Marshall today on it. [Pause.]
President Johnson: Uh-huh . . . uh-huh . . . So . . . O.K., thank you.
McNamara: All right, thank you.
From J. Edgar Hoover
The news about the car dominated discussions (along with calls from Senator Everett Dirksen about an Illinois navigation project) until Hoover called back at 7:15 with news that no bodies were found in the car. Prior to Hoover’s call, Robert Kennedy had arrived at the White House to help plan the Justice Department’s involvement in the investigation and to help lobby former CIA Director Allen Dulles to become an “impartial observer” of the situation in Mississippi for the administration.
J. Edgar Hoover: . . . Now, the . . . the . . . the . . . I talked to the Secretary of Defense, and he’s placed at our disposal a plane which has taken the two laboratory men, and they will arrive at Meridian, Mississippi, at midnight; otherwise we couldn’t have gotten down there until tomorrow morning.
President Johnson: Good.
Hoover: [with the President assenting throughout] We have moved all the inside of the car from the place the car was found to Meridian where the experts will make the examination immediately upon their arrival.
President Johnson: Fine, thank you.
Hoover: Then we’ll, of course, have to start the search for where they are or who did this thing.
President Johnson: Any information they get, if they call you tonight or in the morning, you call me.
Hoover: Yes, I will, Mr. President.
President Johnson: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Hoover: Thank you.
To Anne Schwerner
After hearing the news from Hoover, Johnson made personal calls to the parents of Schwerner and Goodman, but was unable to find the phone number for the family of Chaney. Johnson had received white parents numbers from their congressmen, but had to rely on AT&T operators for Chaney’s number (a misspelling of Chaney's name kept them from finding the number). Ten minutes before the call to Anne Schwerner, Johnson exchanged views with Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson, a successor to Ross Barnett and a man who in a previous campaign had referred to the NAACP as standing for “Niggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons, and Possums.”
President Johnson: Mrs. Schwerner?
Mrs. Nathan Schwerner: Hello President Johnson.
President Johnson: Are you the mother of the . . .
Schwerner: Of Michael.
President Johnson: Yes. We have received word from Mr. [J. Edgar] Hoover that the investigation in the car indicates that there were no people in the car, and it’s very likely that none of them were burned as could have been possible under the early information.
Schwerner: Yes, thank you.
President Johnson: And I have talked to the Governor there, and he is making all the facilities of the state available in the search. And they have seen some tracks leaving the car.
President Johnson: And they’re going to try to continue. We’re flying people in from the FBI tonight, and I just wanted you to know that, and that was a little hope that we didn’t have earlier, and I thought that we would enjoy it as long as we could.
Schwerner: [emotionally] Thank you so much, President Johnson. I appreciate this. Thank you very much.
Schwerner: [emotionally] Thank you.
President Johnson: Bye.
To Robert Goodman
Johnson continued his phone calling for another two hours, speaking to members of Congress, to Lee White, Allen Dulles, and, finally, to Secretary of State Dean Rusk (about the resignation of Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador to South Vietnam).
Brief, unclear office conversation precedes the call.
President Johnson: . . . threw their hats at each other.
Robert Kennedy: God . . . When did I come on? [Unclear.]
President Johnson: [Unclear] came on after [unclear].
Yolanda Boozer then announces Robert Goodman.
Robert Goodman: Hello, Mr. President.
President Johnson: The FBI got in the car.
President Johnson: And think that there’s reasons to believe that no people were in the car because they’ve been unable to find any evidence of that, and there are indications that there were tracks leading from the car back to the highway.
Goodman: That’s wonderful news, Mr. . . .
President Johnson: And we don’t know where we’ll go from there, but I thought you should have that information as soon as we had it.
Goodman: [emotionally] Thank you so much.
President Johnson: We’ve talked to the governor, and he’s agreed to make available all the facilities at his command to search that entire area, and he and the FBI together are working up a plan to go through the area and see if they can find any further information and give it to us. So we’re making arrangements to send additional people in tonight and tomorrow.
Goodman: [emotionally] Mr. President, I can’t express my words to thank you for what you’re doing: for these boys and for us. Thank you so much.
President Johnson: Thank you, sir.
Goodman: [emotionally] Thank you.
President Johnson: Good-bye.
|June 24 to August 3, 1964||
Over the next week, Johnson continued to press for results in the investigation, while turning more of his attention to other matters of state, particularly the conference report on the Civil Rights bill. In a triumphal moment, he signed the act on July 2. The bill’s victory was bittersweet for activists in Mississippi and the loved ones of the three missing men. Despite exploring hundreds of leads, the investigation had yielded scant evidence of the men’s location and had led to no arrests. A major break in the case occurred in early August when an FBI informant (paid $30,000) pointed the Bureau to a farm pond just southwest of Philadelphia.
|August 4, 1964||
From Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, Assistant Director of the FBI
Assistant Director of the FBI Cartha “Deke” DeLoach called Johnson to notify him that the bodies had been found. That day, Johnson was also coping with racial disorders in New Jersey as well as the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
|Summer 1964||Over the course of Freedom Summer, there were at least three murders, approximately 70 bombings or burnings, over 80 beatings, and over 1,000 arrests of civil rights activists. The COFO incident report, a single-spaced document that offered brief daily summaries, was over ten pages long.|
|October 1967||In October 1967, an all-white jury convicted seven white men, including Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, on federal conspiracy charges. Eight others, including Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, were acquitted. The cases of three others ended in a mistrial. No one was brought to trial on state murder charges. Edgar Ray Killen was released by a hung jury, 11-1, reportedly because one juror could not bring herself to convict a preacher.|
|June 21, 2005||
Exactly 41 years after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the state of
Two days later, he received the maximum sentence--60 years in prison.
- Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (New York: MacMillan, 1988)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1995)
- Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
- Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)
- Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-64 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998)
- Photographs from the trial of Edgar Ray Killen by the Jackson Free Press
- About the LBJ Tapes
- LBJ Library
- Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website
- Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive
- FBI Online Reading Room
- Freedom Summer School Curriculum Website
- Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission
- Wednesdays in Mississippi
- Miller Center of Public Affairs
Henry Dee and Charles Moore case:
- Transcription: John Monahan, Robert Johnson, Ashley Havard-High, Seth Center, David Carter, and Kent Germany
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