Remembering Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney
Forty-five years ago today, the bodies of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, and James Chaney were discovered, buried in an earthen dam in Mississippi. They had disappeared six weeks earlier in Neshoba County, Mississippi, while participating in Freedom Summer, a project of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that brought volunteers to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives, run Freedom Schools for African-American children, and build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Schwerner, 24, and Goodman, 20, were white activists from New York -- both Jewish, like half of the white volunteers in Freedom Summer -- and Chaney, 22, was a local activist from the black community. Schwerner and his wife, Rita, had been organizing in Meridian, Mississippi for several months; Goodman had been in Mississippi for one day when the men were stopped by the Deputy Sherriff on their way home from investigating a church bombing in Neshoba County. The three men were arrested, detained, then released and basically handed over to a KKK mob that brutally beat Chaney, killed all three, burned their car, and buried them. Local officials hampered the investigation, and even the federal government dragged its feet in getting involved.
Lately I've been immersed in the events of Freedom Summer as I work on one of JWA's newest projects, a social justice curriculum called Living the Legacy, half of which is devoted to the topic of Jews and the civil rights movement. I knew the stories of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, but I've been learning more about some of the other figures in their lives, like Schwerner's wife, Rita, and Goodman's mother, Carolyn. Both were activists in their own right who refused to fall into the expected roles of grieving widow or mother.
Carolyn Goodman had organized farm workers in her youth and supported Spanish Republicans during the civil war. She and her husband raised their three sons to be engaged in the world, and thus, they did not feel they could stop their son Andy from going south, despite their fear of violence. A year after Andy's death, Carolyn said in an interview with the New York Times, "I still feel that I would let Andy go to Mississippi again. Even after this terrible thing happened to Andy, I couldn't make a turnabout of everything I believe in." For the rest of her life, until her death in 2007 at age 91, she carried forward her son's legacy through her own activism, protesting civil rights abuses and getting arrested into her 80s, and traveling down to Mississippi to testify at the 2005 trial of a Klan leader who was finally indicted and found guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of the three civil rights workers.
Rita Schwerner was in Oxford, Ohio, training the second group of Freedom Summer volunteers when word came that her husband and two others had disappeared. She addressed the volunteers and organized them to pressure the federal government to investigate. Then she traveled to Mississippi, approaching officials herself to demand that they investigate, telling the Sheriff that he would have to "have her killed, too" to get her to leave.
Rita stayed resolutely on message, pointing out that the lynching of the three men sadly fulfilled one of the purposes of Freedom Summer -- to attract national media attention to the civil rights struggle in the South by placing white people at risk of violence. When the bodies were found, her statement to the press read: "My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain. If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm had been sounded." In fact, during the search for the three men, the bodies of seven other murdered black men were discovered at the bottom of rivers and lakes -- men whose disappearance had not been noted by anyone beyond their own friends and families.
The passage of time did not dull her message, or its relevance. At the 2005 trial of Edgar Ray Killen, she told the press: "You're treating this trial as the most important trial of the civil rights movement because two of these three men were white. That means we all have a discussion about racism in this country that has to continue. And if this trial is a way for you to all acknowledge that, for us to all acknowledge that and to have that discussion openly, then this trial has meaning."
So today I'm remembering not only Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney -- may their memories be a blessing -- but also the activists like Rita Schwerner and Carolyn Goodman who inspired them, worked alongside them, and carried on their work after their deaths.