Filling the PMHS auditorium to the back of the balcony, students and community members sat attentively to engage in two discussions with the siblings of Michael Schwerner (a former Pelham resident), James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—three civil rights workers slain by the Ku Klux Klan while working to help African Americans register to vote in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Steve Schwerner, the Rev. Julia Chaney-Moss, and David Goodman attended an afternoon session for students and an evening session for the community on Thursday, Nov. 13 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their siblings’ deaths. It had also been announced days earlier that the three murdered civil rights workers will posthumously be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Nov. 24.
“All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence was a theme of the afternoon session. Students also asked questions about what life was like in the South for African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights Movement and how they can become involved in important issues today.
Among those attending the evening session were people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and who wanted to meet and thank the siblings of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.
The PMHS Chamber Chorus added to the emotional tone of the event, performing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is often referred to as “The African American National Anthem.”
Both sessions were moderated by Author/Emeritus Dean of the Columbia Journalism School Nicholas Lemann with an additional introduction from Dr. John Howard, Professor Emeritus at SUNY Purchase.
“History can take on a misleadingly cut-and-dried quality,” said Mr. Lemann. “That misses how difficult and frightening and contingent it is to try to make history in the present day. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner did, and sacrificed their lives for that cause.”
As audience members were greeted in the lobby by a voter registration table, a display of 9th grader Alexandria Tiso’s 2013 National History Day project on The Freedom Summer, and the 25-year-old plaque for Schwerner hung outside the auditorium, the spirit and legacy of the deceased were very much apparent.
In discussing what drove her brother to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Chaney-Moss described her older brother—who grew up in Meridian, MI and was killed a month after his 21st birthday—as being “an attentive student, captain of his football team... a normal adolescent.”
“(He was) very attuned to his environment and very attuned to the plight (of African Americans),” she said. “His burning question was, ‘Why do we have to live this way?’ That then became the thrust behind his actions to bring about whatever change he could to make that difference.”
Andrew Goodman was also 21 years old at the time of his murder and had been recruited for the cause at Queens College.
“It feels to me like they were called to the cause,” said Mr. Goodman’s brother. “He just saw things in terms of fair and unfair.”
Another major focus of the discussion was the way in which the murder of the young men garnered national attention and served as a catalyst for important changes in American history.
“One of the real lessons of this event is that if Mickey and Andy had not been white, it never would have made the news,” said Mr. Schwerner. “Black folks had been killed for years working for civil rights. Nobody’s ever heard of them.”
Following public outcry at the tragedy, a national spotlight was focused on unequal application of voter registration and on racial discrimination laws in southern states. On July 2, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin, strengthening the 14th and 15th Amendments.
However, Mr. Schwerner told both students and the community that the last few years have resulted in an erosion to the voting rights that his brother, Mr. Chaney, and Mr. Goodman died for.
“What’s happened in the last few years is that state legislatures have passed lots of laws reinstituting poll taxes as it were,” Mr. Schwerner told the students, referring to voter identification laws that have recently been approved in some states. “(They are) making it much more difficult—especially for poor people and many people of color and young people—to vote. The Supreme Court ratified the sense that it’s OK to put barriers up to voting again, even though we thought in 1965 they were broken down. If you ask what young people can do today, that’s one of the things. They can work hard to try to get that rectified and get Congress to pass a new voting rights act.”
Mr. Goodman agreed during the second session and cited the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s focus on getting young adults engaged and involved in the democratic process.
“I am so heartened today to hear from young people and some of their questions about how they can become involved,” said Rev. Chaney-Moss. “It is so important that those of us who have a clue tell our young people what work there is to do.”
Well-attended by Pelhamites, the evening session also drew the attention of people from other communities, such as New Rochelle resident James Roberts who introduced himself as a Korean War veteran who had marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
“I salute you and your families for what they instilled in our departed brothers, and I call them brothers because the night we left Selma, I’ll never forget Reverend Abernathy on the stage stating that we were to stay together because there was danger out there,” he said during the question and answer session. “Some groups, not the least of which was the KKK, were determined to eliminate us. And so whatever spirit was put in your siblings by parents, we salute you. And I thank God that 50 years later there’s going to be a presidential recognition of their loss.”
When asked about life in the South for African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Chaney-Moss told the students that her mother never had an opportunity to vote in Mississippi, nor did she or her brother James. She also said her parents and the community she lived in did their best to shield children from the oppression prevalent in the South.
“As young children growing up, our parents created a safe and caring community. We weren’t clear about the dangers in the outside community until we were much older…until we left those communities to go to school,” she said.
In explaining the significance of the three murders, Mr. Goodman said, “I feel that our story of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman is your story. You own it. It’s about Northerners and Southerners coming together and jumping over a north-south continental divide. It’s about black and white coming together. It’s about Jewish and Christian coming together, it’s about rich and poor coming together. It’s a universal story. It’s your story.”
Additional reporting by Alex Wolff