The first time I ever heard of Michael Schwerner was after he disappeared in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964.
And then Tuesday, 41 years later to the day, ex-Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter for masterminding the 1964 slayings of civil rights workers Schwerner, James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
Schwerner graduated from Pelham Memorial High School, in a town bordering New York City, in 1957. I started ninth grade there in 1958 and graduated in 1962.
Schwerner majored in sociology at Cornell University and started graduate school in sociology at Columbia, but left to become a social worker. Then, deeply affected by the 1963 Birmingham riots, Michael and his wife Rita left to organize community programs and register black voters in Mississippi.
When Schwerner died, I had just finished my second year at Columbia, where I majored in sociology.
(At that time, Roger Forman, now a lawyer in Charleston, was attending Albert Leonard Junior High School in New Rochelle where Schwerner’s mother taught him biology.)
Two months before the Mississippi tragedy, I participated in my very first demonstration. (I’ve been in many more since.)
We picketed the Shaefer Beer Pavilion on the opening day of the New York World’s Fair on April 22, 1964, asking the company to improve its hiring practices.
We were part of a larger protest. The Congress of Racial Equality had more than 1,000 people picketing at the World’s Fair. Nearly 200 of us were arrested.
We were detained by Pinkerton security guards, then charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. (The charges were later dismissed and a judge ruled the World’s Fair could not arrest peaceful protesters.)
Just two months later, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman disappeared. Schwerner and Goodman were both shot through the heart. Chaney, who was black, was brutally beaten to death.
Tom Schweitzer, my best friend from high school home from Holy Cross College for the summer, and I decided to organize a protest in Pelham.
It was an eye-opening experience for both of us.
Apparently, Mississippi was not the only place where racists, and people afraid to speak out against it lived.
Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, the great stage and film stars, lived in neighboring New Rochelle. When we called them, they agreed to speak if we could organize a memorial protest in Pelham.
Tom and I started working to recruit other supporters, starting out with local clergy.
Pelham’s only Jewish rabbi and one young Roman Catholic priest told us they were happy to sponsor a meeting.
Every other clergyman we spoke with flatly refused, giving us a variety of reasons.
Rev. William Schram, minister at Pelham Huguenot Memorial Presbyterian, which our family attended, said he could not openly speak out against the killings in Mississippi.
Schram told us he wanted to preserve his “influence” to help a black family, in case one ever decided to move into Pelham Manor, the most exclusive part of town.
A local Baptist minister was not quite so nice, telling us bluntly that Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman had no business meddling in politics in another state.
“They deserved what they got,” he said.
The local police were unfriendly when we told them we planned to pass out leaflets at the local railroad station as passengers got off the Stamford Local from New York City, along the New Haven Line.
One officer said he would arrest us for littering if anyone taking our leaflets tossed them on the ground.
After several days, we gave up. Instead, we urged people to attend another memorial meeting successfully planned in neighboring New Rochelle. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee both spoke there.
Not everyone turned away from making a statement.
Ogden Reid, the prominent Republican Congressman from our district, expressed outrage at the brutal murders. He traveled to Mississippi, demanding federal authorities do more to protect black people and civil rights workers.
Shortly after the 1964 tragedy, the Pelham Committee on Human Relations created a “Michael Schwerner Memorial Award for Leadership in Human Relations.” Ever since, it has been given to one graduating senior at Pelham Memorial High.
In June 1968, my younger brother Philip won the award. He still displays the framed award in his home in Evanston, Ill., where he is a sociology professor at Loyola University Chicago. In high school, he organized tutoring programs for younger children at local churches.
After Tuesday’s verdict, Jim Prince, editor of the weekly “Neshoba Democrat” in Mississippi, wrote, “Finally, finally, finally. This certainly sends a message, I think, to the criminals and to the thugs that justice reigns in Neshoba County.”
On Thursday, a Mississippi judge sentenced Killen, an 80-year old lumber company owner and part-time Baptist preacher, to 60 years behind bars
Maybe things are better in Pelham, too.
“The Historic Pelham Herald,” an online newsletter, published a story about Schwerner last year. It praised his academic record, noted he was in the school band and orchestra and that he played baseball, football and basketball.
“Few in Pelham know that the town has a connection to one of the saddest and most despicable events that occurred during the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” wrote editor Blake A. Bell.
That tribute was far different than the views of Pelham’s Protestant ministers 40 years earlier.
© 2005 Charleston Gazette