Jewish World Review June 24, 2004 /5 Tamuz 5764
Freedom Summer of '64
Some people say unsolved civil rights-era murder cases should be left alone. The quest for long-delayed justice, they say, is not worth the reopening of those old social wounds. For others among us, those wounds never healed.
Forty years have passed, for example, since Freedom Summer, but I still vividly remember the massive project to register blacks in the South to vote. The Constitution had granted African-Americans the right to vote almost 100 years earlier, but that radical notion had not taken hold in the South.
Among the black folks willing to risk their lives to change that were a young mom and dad who showed up, tired but determined, with their teenage daughter at my family's doorstep in Middletown, Ohio.
They had driven all the way from rural Mississippi to help train young volunteer civil rights workers at nearby Western College for Women, which is now part of the Miami University campus in Oxford, Ohio, before the volunteers left for the South.
A local minister had asked my parents if they could make a bedroom in our large house available to the family. We understood. If you were black in those days, you could not routinely check into the first hotel or motel you came across. You either slept in your car, more often than not, or drove all night until you reached your destination.
I was 16 years old then, angry at America's homegrown apartheid and delighted to help host our visitors. Thanks to my parents' hospitality, I rubbed up against a small part of history.
Word came on June 21, 1964, that three of the volunteers who trained at Western College were killed on a remote country road in Neshoba County, Miss., where they had gone to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, a black church. By the time their bodies were discovered buried in an earthen dam more than a month later, the youthful faces of Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, two white men from New York City, and James Chaney, 21, a black man from Meridian, Miss., had become part of our national memory.
Federal agents identified a local "klavern" of Ku Klux Klansmen as the killers who chased down the civil rights workers late at night, shot Schwerner and Goodman in the chest and beat Chaney to death. It was Schwerner, despised by the Klan for his effective organizing work, the Klansmen were really after, investigators said. Chaney and Goodman were apparently killed because they were witnesses.
Three years later, seven alleged members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted of federal conspiracy charges, but none served more than six years in prison. Eight others were acquitted, and three others were freed after mistrials. The state never brought murder charges in the killings, which were chronicled in the film "Mississippi Burning" with way too much Hollywood license.
Four decades later, a lot has changed in the South. Blacks vote, hold public office and have a better than even chance of being judged for the content of their character, not just the color of their skin.
And now a multiracial coalition that includes Mississippi's Atty. Gen. Jim Hood and Gov. Haley Barbour is pushing for a new federal murder investigation in the deaths of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney.
It would be the latest in a series of seemingly cold civil rights cases to be reopened. The U.S. Justice Department recently opened a new investigation into the 1955 lynching of Chicago teen Emmett Till in Money, Miss. In 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted in Jackson, Miss., and sentenced to life in prison for the 1963 killing of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Twelve of the original Neshoba County defendants are still alive, including Edgar Ray Killen, the alleged leader of the klavern and an ordained Baptist minister. Since the state never filed murder charges, all could be charged with murder now without violating their protection from double jeopardy.
Some people say such cases should be left alone, that we're better off trying to forget such episodes, turn the page and move on. I say we should never forget.
We need to remember Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney as symbols of hope. Those two Northern Jewish men and one Southern black man offer us Americans a powerful vision of intergroup respect, cooperation and mutual sacrifice in our increasingly diverse nation.
We need to remember, contrary to "Mississippi Burning," how black folks in Mississippi, and certainly not J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, took the lead in winning freedom for black Mississippians.
When Americans of all colors consider whether it's worth it to get up off our comfy couches on Election Day and leave our cozy homes to go and vote, we should remember what Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney did to help all Americans to vote.
In short, as old-school civil rights leaders used to say, we need to remember Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney as a reminder that freedom is not free.
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