June 21, 1964, Father’s Day. Stephen Schwerner was in Provincetown, Mass., on vacation with his wife. Ben Chaney was at a meeting at his church in Meridian, Miss. David Goodman was a teenager with a summer job, living in his family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Their lives were about to change forever because of their respective brothers’ unwitting sacrifice.
That night, in the back roads of Neshoba County, Miss., Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were shot to death by the Ku Klux Klan, their bodies dumped in an earthen dam and not recovered for another 44 days. Because Chaney was African American, he was the only one badly beaten before his murder. Because Schwerner and Goodman were white, their deaths grabbed even the attention of the White House. And because they were Jewish, their story has come to symbolize the indelible bond between blacks and Jews in the civil rights movement.
The brothers didn’t learn the news until the next day. Schwerner turned on the television in his Provincetown hotel, and soon got a telephone call from his father, saying that “Mickey” was one of the three civil rights workers who’d gone missing. Goodman remembers his mother pacing the apartment as she waited for word of their fates. And Chaney — well, he was there in Meridian, where any black person agitating for civil rights was in mortal danger of a white law enforcement willing to use blunt force to maintain its priviledge.
I heard the brothers speak recently at an event jointly sponsored by the Hillel and the Black Alumni Association of Cornell University, where Schwerner had integrated a fraternity while a student. Apparently, the three men do something of a road show together, since they all now live in or near New York City. Their contemporary message — that the voting rights their brothers campaigned for with their lives are again under assault — was absolutely important to hear, particularly in light of efforts by many states to place additional barriers to registration and voting. “Having fought so hard to get the right to vote, to see a major push to end that right is of great concern,” said Schwerner.
But honestly, such talk was also expected. What fascinated me was the way their brush with evil had so obviously affected these men for nearly half a century. “We never appreciated that a family member of ours could be murdered in that way,” acknowledged Goodman, who was only 17 when his big brother, Andrew, persuaded their mother to give her signed approval to his joining the Freedom Summer volunteers. Andrew Goodman died one day after arriving in Mississippi. He was 20.
Certainly, Ben Chaney, whose voice still carries a hint of Mississippi twang, was closest to the horror — burdened, too, by the knowledge that before that fateful night, hundreds of other black men had been lynched in the South without much notice. For all the gigantic leaps this nation has taken in the ensuing decades, Chaney remains personally aware of the persistence of racism. He said that his brother’s grave continues to be desecrated, the last time just three months ago.
They are all doing their part to maintain their brothers’ legacies, through foundations, political activism and teaching. As Schwerner noted: “The civil rights movement is not a series of famous people, but a movement [with people] whose names we’ll never know. Most were African American. Most were women. It was indigenous people who made the movement.”
But the sad truth is that it was the presence of these Northern Jews that called national attention to the indigenous struggle. Much as the brothers were embarrassed and annoyed by that fact, it has bound them together for 48 years and has haunted our consciences ever since.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and it has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.