Civics For Change: Michael Schwerner
The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s mission is in alignment with the values I carry with me and what I believe is vital to preserving democracy. Youth voters are too often underrepresented within our nation’s democracy. As a young college voter myself, I understand the need for greater voting accessibility, and I believe that it is our duty to dismantle the barriers that too often lead to social injustice.
Growing up, I was driven by a desire to uphold those in my community and the people that maintained it. Today, I realize that doing so also means advocating for legislative and social change in support of my community. Michael Schwerner, an activist who dedicated his life to the Civil Rights Movement, believed such change could come to fruition when amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for their constitutional rights.
Who was Michael Schwerner?
Michael “Mickey” Schwerner was born in New York City on November 6, 1939, to a middle-class couple by the names of Ann and Nathan Schwerner. Ann Schwerner, an elementary school teacher, and Nathan Schwerner, a company manufacturer, were politically active community members while living in New York City. Early in Michael’s childhood, his parents enrolled his younger brother and him “for a short time in the progressive Walden School.”
Later in his childhood, Michael and his family moved to Westchester County, where he attended public school. After graduating from Pelham Memorial High School in Westchester County, Michael attended Michigan State University and later transferred as a sociology major to Cornell University, which, today, participates in The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere program. At Cornell, he took his first steps into the realm of the social justice movement when advocating for the membership of Black pledges and racial integration within his fraternity. In 1961, following his early undergraduate years, Michael enrolled in the School of Social Work at Columbia University. Disheartened by the lack of hands-on community service and public engagement, Michael cultivated a disdain for the graduate program. According to Michael and the many members involved in New York City’s civic service, the school’s approach to social change “did not address the root causes of poverty.”
Within the first year, Michael dropped out and took a civil service position at the Hamilton-Madison House in 1962. Located in a housing project on the Lower East Side, Hamilton-Madison House assisted low-income families with medical and education programs. Michael helped run the after-school program that assisted students living in poverty with tutoring and counseling. Today, the Hamilton-Madison House maintains its status as an operating non-profit.
Involvement with CORE
Michael’s thrill for social work and his unwavering desire to end institutional poverty propelled him toward a future career in the Civil Rights Movement. He dreamt of joining a cause that actively worked to diminish the socioeconomic disparities and racial inequities that loomed throughout the South. After witnessing the catastrophic events that followed the Birmingham riots, Michael quickly joined the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) in 1963.
Motivated by the same protest strategies as Mahatma Gandhi, CORE practiced nonviolent protest alongside civil disobedience to achieve legislative change. At CORE, Michael organized community gatherings and housing coalition meetings while also maintaining his job at the Hamilton-Madison. Additionally, he volunteered at copious human rights organizations scattered throughout the Lower East Side, many of which focused on nonviolent direct-action protests. In November of 1963, Michael and his wife Rita were hired to manage a Mississippi Summer Project, known as Freedom Summer, in Meridian, Mississippi. They began their job in January 1964 alongside volunteers like James Earl Chaney. Together, they campaigned for Black voter registration, organized sit-ins, and “established a community center that was meant to be the heart of their voter registration and education efforts.” During their time in Meridian, the volunteers facilitated an atmosphere that further addressed civil rights as human rights.
With the help of local volunteers like James Chaney and Sue Brown, the couple established a vibrant community center; the community center became a hub of positive activity that the Schwerners were constantly expanding to further address the needs of Black community.
And His Legacy Lives On
Enraged by Michael’s efforts to get Black community members registered to vote, the Ku Klux Klan took notice of Michael and CORE’s most prominent volunteers. His involvement with the Civil Rights Movement made him a target for those who wanted to suppress the Black vote. Michael hoped to dedicate the entirety of his life pushing toward a future with an integrated society and even risked his life trying to uphold this word.
On June 21, 1964, the Klan attacked Mount Zion Church, a Black congregational church set to be used as a new building site for Freedom Summer. Immediately after hearing the news, Schwerner, Chaney, and Andrew Goodman traveled to Neshoba County to visit the victims. The three men did not return. They never even made it to the church. Members of the Klan intercepted them, and all three men disappeared for the next 44 days. Their bodies were found on August 4, 1964.
Today, we continue the legacy of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney by working with Andrew Goodman Ambassadors across the country on more than 80 college campuses. This summer, our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors and young people from our partner organizations are gathering for Legacy Summer 2022, where they will hear inspiring panels and participate in training sessions. They will leave the event prepared and ready to lead the movement of young voters to the 2022 Midterm Elections. Register today and join us as we honor the legacies of voting rights activists who came before us while paving the way for the next generation of young people to take bold action and make lasting change.
About The Author
Ximena Pulido is the Programs Intern for The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She is a rising sophomore at Yale University studying History and Political Science with a certificate in Spanish. Ximena understands the importance of expanding voter turnout and the need for greater voting accessibility.