Michael Henry Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Earl Chaney.
Their names are now a part of American history. It was the summer of 1964. The three had joined nearly 700 other college students, mostly white, mostly from the North, to register black citizens to vote in Mississippi.
I was living in Cincinnati at the time. I had completed my divinity degree and signed up at Xavier University to get another Master’s. I was an avid follower of the civil rights movement.
Freedom summer, the voter registration drive was called. Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney had left the county seat on an old dirt road to investigate a report of a church burning. But after saying goodbye to their friends, they weren’t heard from again. They had gone missing. Friends and family worried. Days later, their burned out Ford Fairlane was found. A publicity stunt, the Neshoba County sheriff called it.
Attorney General Bobby Kennedy dispatched FBI agents to the county. After a few more days of searching, the bodies of the three young men were unearthed at a recent dam construction site. As I recall the agents got an inside tip.
It’s been 50 years since the murders. I got a chilling reminder of that time with the recent PBS “American Experience” special on “Freedom Summer.” Such days of hope and fear.
In November President Kennedy’s assassination had just sent the country into shock. The Warren Commission hadn’t started its work. President Johnson was pressing Congress to pass a strong civil rights bill. The big escalation of American troops in Vietnam would come months later.
That summer Republicans and Democrats would hold their national conventions, the Republicans in San Francisco and Democrats in Atlantic City. To prevent southerners from defecting from the party, Johnson engineered a move to have the Democratic convention recognize the all-white Mississippi regulars. They were being challenged by blacks and white advocates of civil rights, a group led by the indomitable Fannie Lou Hamer.
The rules committee ended up awarding her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party a token of two seats. At the time, I thought it was an outrageous insult.
Consider the background of these dramatic political developments. This is the ugly era of lynchings, church burnings and intimidation of blacks in Mississippi and throughout much of the South. It was this climate of terror that pervaded the daily lives of the young people registering blacks to vote and claim their birthright as Americans.
For generations whites in the South invoked various tactics to deny the vote to blacks. That included the poll tax and literacy tests. In time, federal courts would strike down these supposedly legal tactics. Nevertheless, there’s no way you could say the cause that Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney gave their lives for has been won.
To be sure, the beatings, the church burnings and lynchings are history. But conservative white Republicans have resurrected a new barrier to deny blacks and other poor people the ballot. Thirty-one states now require that a person produce valid identification to vote.
Supporters of these laws claim to be preventing voter fraud. But studies by New York University’s Brennan Center have found that the voter identification laws primarily suppress the vote of minorities and other poor persons – sometimes enough votes to change an election’s outcome. Researchers could find no more than one case of fraud out of 15 million prospective voters.
It was 50 years ago, Freedom Summer. The country has changed. Cities in the South now elect black mayors and members of the council. We have a black president. The KKK has faded. For the most part, racism, no longer is open and public. Yet full equality for blacks still seems a long way into the future, whether we’re talking about jobs, income, housing, school integration.
Schwerner. Goodman. Chaney. I’m sure their cause will never die. I know I will never forget them.
That would come after the election when Johnson deliver a historic defeat to the Republican, Barry Goldwater.
Years later, the film, “Mississippi Burning,” tried to capture some of the terror of those times. It starred Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe as FBI agents who faced the open hostility of white officials and other white citizens.