Are we becoming the America that allowed the Freedom Summer Tragedy?
Recent events make me think this is not the America for which my brother, Andrew Goodman, died. My family and others who struggled through the civil rights movement had hoped that murders by domestic terrorists and the sanctioning of the systematic disenfranchisement of minorities were a thing of the past. We wanted to believe that the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act ensured we would not return to the repressive white supremacist doctrine, practices and policies that horrified and galvanized our nation in the 1960s.
My brother Andy was only 20 when white supremacists murdered him and his two companions. He was white and Jewish, from an upper-middle-class family in New York City. On June 21, 1964, Andy joined another white Jewish New Yorker, Michael Schwerner, and a black Mississippi civil rights organizer, James Chaney, to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Miss. On their way back, their station wagon was pulled over by the police. Later, they disappeared and their bodies weren’t found for 44 days.
The recent shootings in El Paso, by a gunman who said he targeted “Mexicans,” brought a rush of powerful emotions for me and my family. I don’t think our family understood the gravity of Andy’s decision; I was only 17 when he died. We had no idea that his participation in registering black Americans to vote could lead to his death. We knew that he could be beaten or jailed, but not murdered. I often wonder whether Andy knew the risk; if he did, surely he understood it was a risk worth taking.
This year we commemorate the 55th anniversary of that tragic summer and recoil at the making of almost two dozen more martyrs to white supremacist terrorism in El Paso. Will our country’s reaction somehow mirror the outrage and action that resulted from Andy’s, Michael’s and James’s murders, with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
Today, within six years of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act — based on an opinion by our Supreme Court that racist voter suppression no longer was a threat — racism and xenophobia aimed at brown and black people, both citizens and immigrants, again has reared its ugly head. Unlike my brother, the victims in El Paso did not sign up to change the world; they were just shopping, targeted because of hatred and a perceived threat by an individual inspired by racist rhetoric.
In many ways, instead of turning a page on our racist history, it feels like our country is turning back to the future. What’s most worrying is that, at least back in the 1960s, attempts to suppress the votes of certain populations were more localized. Then, the federal government and courts remained firmly committed to preserving an inclusive and just democracy for all. This is not so clear today.
Today, black Americans still are kept away from the polls by an insurgence of restrictive, undemocratic laws such as one passed in Tennessee this year. Central American immigrants, who are fleeing their homes to escape persecution — as my Jewish family did when they left Russia in 1870 — are being victimized by a punitive agenda that denies them the right to due process.
No, this is not the America for which Andrew died. It seems we have become so desensitized to inequality, hatred and violence that we no longer are galvanized to action. What’s the response to the increase in hate crimes, mass shootings, or a climate crisis that threatens all of our lives? We no longer can afford to stand by. We must fight as if our lives depend on it — because they do.
When we stand up for the rights of others, we are standing up for our own rights and values. Like Andy and Michael — two of many white allies who stood up for their black brothers and sisters in the 1960s — we must stand for all those who are being oppressed by the racist white power structure today. We need to carry on the work to make our democracy work for everyone.
The story of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner is our American story. The ideals emboldened by the Freedom Summer volunteers must serve as ours. It’s time for us to challenge ourselves to do more, to do better. It’s going to be uncomfortable and hard, but nothing worth fighting for is ever achieved by staying silent.