Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holds a picture of  Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman at press conference.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holds a picture of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman at press conference

Getty Image/Bettmann

Mississippi Goddamn: You Were Definitely Involved In This

Honoring "a story of absolute moral and physical courage," we mark the 60th anniversary of the murder of young civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by white supremacists for the crime of working to register black voters, end apartheid in the Jim Crow South, and make a better, fairer world. Amidst right-wing assaults on our rights and history, many deem it vital we remember those who confronted America's brutal racist legacy and declared, "We are not afraid."

The killing by some of the Ku Klux Klan's "very fine people" of three young men - one black native of Mississippi, two white Jews from New York - during 1964's "Freedom Summer" became a seminal moment in the Civil Rights movement. It was a fraught time in a still defiantly-segregationist South. The previous August, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech to an impassioned crowd of 250,000 in D.C. Three weeks later, white supremacy responded by bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church during Sunday school, killing four young black girls and injuring over 20; that night, several black youths were also beaten to death. In a racist war of rights viciously withheld and ardently sought, voting was viewed as key in a state where Blacks made up about 40% of the population but - subdued by poll taxes, literacy tests, threats of violence - less than 7% of voters' ranks. "We had the old raggedy buses, we got the raggedy books with somebody else's name in them," recalls Jewel Rush McDonald, 78. "My mother (thought) there was a better way somewhere, but it wasn’t here in Mississippi."

Since 1961, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had been sending organizers to Mississippi to get out the vote: "They trudged up and down dirt roads, sat on porches, went to church, walked into cotton fields and helped with daily chores." As their numbers swelled, segregationists intent on protecting their power "went to the whip hand." The mayor of Jackson added 100 new cops to their 200-strong police force along with 200 shotguns, tear gas, three military troop carriers, two horses and two dogs, and the governor called a special session to double highway patrols and stockpile guns. The Imperial Wizard of the KKK announced they needed "a secondary, extremely swift, extremely violent, hit-and-run group as J. Edgar Hoover's complicit FBI worked to undermine and infiltrate civil rights groups. And all of this was before 1964's Freedom Summer campaign in which organizers mobilized white college students, faith activists and other Freedom Riders from the North to travel to Mississippi to bolster voting rights efforts.

Moved to action by the 16th Street Church bombing, Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner, 24, was a Jewish social worker in Manhattan before he began running CORE's Meridian office with his wife Rita; in her CORE application, she wrote she hoped to "someday pass on to the children we may have a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men than that world which was willed to us." Michael was close with Black Meridian native James Earl Chaney, 21, involved with civil rights efforts since he was 16. Soon after the two convinced members of nearby Philadelphia's Mt. Zion Methodist Church to train for voting rights work and host a Freedom School, the Klan went to the church and beat congregants; they later returned to set the church ablaze. Schwerner and Chaney spent several days comforting church members. On June 20, they drove back to Meridian with a CORE newcomer: Andrew Goodman, 20, a Jewish student at Queens College. The day before, he sent a postcard to his parents saying he'd arrived safely: "Dear Mom and Dad, The people in this city are wonderful and our reception was very good. All my love, Andy.”

The sultry morning of June 21, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman left Meridian in an old station wagon for Philadelphia for a meeting on the church fire. Schwerner told a volunteer he'd be back by 4; if he wasn't, they should launch emergency protocols. With Freedom Riders arriving daily, tensions ran high. The Klan's Edgar Ray 'Preacher' Killen told a crew of new recruits to be ready for "the occasional elimination." The KKK already kept close watch on CORE; thanks to his friendship with Chaney, they'd come to especially hate Schwerner, and routinely talked about killing him. Around 3 p.m., Sheriff's deputy and KKKer Cecil Price pulled the three men over for "speeding," put them in jail, and alerted Killen to assemble a lynch mob. The men paid a fine; Price let them go around 10 p.m., chased them down a dirt road and turned them over to a carload of KKK who began beating them. Schwerner was dragged out first - "Are you that n***er lover?” He tried to reason - "Sir, I know how you feel" - and was shot point black in the chest. Goodman was shot next. Before Chaney was shot, he was beaten with chains; he may or may not have been castrated.

Word of their disappearance quickly spread, in large part because Schwerner and Goodman were white. Lyndon Johnson strong-armed Hoover to send over 100 agents to Mississippi, where they uncovered the Klan's reign of terror - and eight previously murdered black men and boys - but not the three missing CORE workers. On July 2, the House passed the Civil Rights Act into law. On July 16, Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Act, accepted the GOP nomination for president; he told delegates, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." On Aug. 4, an FBI informant led agents to a dirt dam that held the bodies of three men killed in the defense of what white supremacists deemed "liberty." Goodman may have been alive when buried - he had red clay clutched in his hands - and all Chaney's bones were broken. In November, 18 Klan members, including Price, were arraigned on federal charges of violating the three men's civil rights; an all-white jury found seven guilty, but none served more than six years. Preacher Killen went free on a hung jury. The State of Mississippi declined to charge any of the 18 (or anyone else) with murder.

In 1988, an acclaimed book about the murders, and the sacrifices of so many others, was published; its title: "We Are Not Afraid." That year also saw the release of the award-winning movie Mississippi Burning; many whites in Mississippi said they'd known almost nothing about the murders until they saw the movie. "People had this voluntary amnesia," says Dawn Lea Mars Chalmers, 54. "There was a whole generation that grew up and didn't know - it was a deep, dark, secret stain...We all had these feelings of disgust and shame, like we should have known how it was." In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the murders, Chalmers was one of a group of locals who started a coalition to prosecute Edgar Ray Killen, then 80. Heeding their call, the next year the state convicted him of manslaughter and sentenced him to 60 years. Killen died in the State Penitentiary in 2018 at 92; perversely, his gravestone bears the title "Rev." Still, says Chalmers, "It was some sort of reckoning that we felt led to do...That's what (we) owe the generation that went through it - to make sure people know what those boys were fighting for."

Many others join them in tribute. Every June, Mount Zion holds a service that for years Jewel McDonald planned; she felt it was her responsibility. "They came here to help us. I feel we owe it to them," she says, teary. “If they could die, lose their lives - their lives were taken, I should say - that’s the least I could do." In 2014, Obama presented Presidential Medals of Freedom posthumously to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner "for how they lived - with the idealism and the courage of youth." In May, at Queens College commencement, medals were awarded to Goodman's brother David for his Andrew Goodman Foundation's social justice initiatives; to the Rev. Julia Chaney-Moss, James's sister and an activist minister; and Stephen Schwerner, Mickey's brother, for his lifelong anti-war and civil rights advocacy. Last week, Robert Reich described, as a child bullied for being short, how he was protected by the same Mickey, "a kind and gentle teenager (who) made me feel safe." Today, in an America beset by bullies - of black, poor, gay, trans, female, exploited - "It is incumbent on all of us to stand up to bullies, and be each other’s protectors."

This, photographer Danny Lyon argues, "is what the Southern civil rights movement was about" - these three men and their "absolute moral and physical courage, literally ready to die for the kind of ideas that this country has always claimed it stood for, and almost never in its history actually practiced." He summons other "unsung heroes" of the movement: Diane Nash, Bob Mosses, Fannie Lou Hamer, the "sheer terror" faced by Freedom Riders, "John Lewis punched in the face as he came first off the bus, mobs of over a thousand that greeted the riders, smashing cameras, faces, and heads," black hospitals packed with riders "with broken noses, bones, lacerations from police clubs used against demonstrators who were actually praying at the moment," over 14,000 people arrested during a ten-week period in 1963 known as "Firestorm," the "action in the streets that created the pressure for social and legal change." The lesson: "That it is possible to make history, and that individual Americans have some control over their destiny. It happened once - and not so long ago."

Today, Blacks make up just over half the population of about 7,000 in a Bible-Belt Philadelphia where the Popeye's sign flashes, "Jesus is the answer." Lynch mobs are gone, there are historic Freedom Trail markers - albeit "widely scattered, easily missed" - and a somewhat incongruous Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Memorial Highway. But a Confederate monument still stands, the state ranks at or near the bottom in poverty, health care, education and jobs, with Blacks suffering disproportionately, and a local museum features exhibits on farming, bluegrass and the beloved Neshoba County Fair but, says an elderly docent, "We don't stress the civil rights here." In the cemetery at Mount Zion Church, three weathered gravestones bear the names and cameo images of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman; the dates of death are all June 21, 1964. When their bodies were finally found, part of the grisly mystery was solved. But a "clearly shaken" Martin Luther King Jr. posed a "deeper question: It’s not so much who killed those young men, but what killed them."

Key to the answer, argues Tim Moore, is accountability for systemic racism. To white people in Philadelphia and across the South, he asserts, "You were definitely involved in this."' Still, for black people, says Eddie Hinton, 64, who serves as pastor for four small congregations, including Mount Zion, "Even after all those years, they’re still hurting....A message of healing is what I search for most of the time." As to the better world the three men died for, suggests James Young, 68, patience is required. As a young boy, Young remembers watching his father lie on the living room floor, rifle ready, after the community got word "the Klan is riding tonight." Today, as four-term mayor and the town's first African-American leader, he says, "We have made strides to be better..I'm gonna put it just like that." Mirroring the city's brutal past, he says, "I have seen the power of the vote." He won his first race for mayor by 45 votes. "We went after every live body that was registered," he says, pleading with them to go vote. "We found out some weren't going because they couldn't read, or because they didn't want to tell folks they couldn't read. And this was 2009."

Still, while Philadelphia has changed, Leroy Clemons, 62, wonders if it's possible to truly move forward into the future without grappling with the past. A sort of ambassador for his city, Clemons works with youth and leads civil rights tours - though usually from out of state, not within a GOP-controlled state that created a new Constitution specifically for the purpose of disenfranchising African American voters. On his tours, he takes students to Mount Nebo Missionary Church, the McClelland Cafe, the town's only black-owned business that survived the civil rights era, and the wooded area where Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were murdered. "I always say to young people, 'I'm going to tell you what happened. But I want y'all, more importantly, to understand why those things were happening.'" In that spot, he kneels and feels terror: "It immediately takes me back to that night - as a Black man, a Black person... I can see the faces of those young boys standing out there with these men, not knowing what to expect. When I’m down on my knees, and I’m telling the story, it’s like I can feel Michael there, holding his friend James, in his arms."

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