Freedom Summer and Cornell Connections

On June 11th, 1963, following Governor George Wallace’s infamous decision to stand in the schoolhouse door, President John F. Kennedy delivered an address to the nation, where he said that we were “confronted primarily with a moral issue.” There, President Kennedy reaffirmed that our country “was founded on the principle that all men are created equal,” and stated, “that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Earlier that year, Governor Wallace had decreed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and, in Birmingham, in the sweltering summer of ’63, civil rights activists were attacked viciously by police dogs and by officers holding high-pressured public water hoses.

President Kennedy proposed that the “heart of the question [was] whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” Just one year following President Kennedy’s address, on June 21st, 1964, three civil rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – disappeared and were found murdered. As we all know, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were part of a group of volunteers that had travelled to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, in an effort to register voters, address educational segregation, and reduce inequalities. The night of their murder, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had gone to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, which had been torched by the Ku Klux Klan because its facilities were requested as a location for a freedom school. Upon their return home, a Deputy Sherriff from a small Mississippi town apprehended them and placed them in jail. While they were in jail, the Deputy Sherriff notified the Ku Klux Klan of his apprehension of the young men. Once released, the Klan mobilized and shot and killed James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

I was reminded most recently of the extraordinary story of these three men, because I am a student at Cornell University and at Cornell, there is a group advocating for the creation of a prominent outdoor memorial to honor Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner and other Cornellians who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Both Goodman and Schwerner had significant connections to Cornell –members of Andrew Goodman’s immediate family had attended the institution, and Michael Schwerner graduated in 1961, and as a student, he had led the effort to desegregate the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity. Today, if built in Ithaca, the memorial would serve a lasting purpose – reminding future generations of Cornellians and visitors to Cornell of the sacrifices that countless men and women have made in pursuit of equal rights and access to justice for all people.

As Cornell approaches its Sesquicentennial – the 150th year since its founding – and as we come ever closer to the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer, we begin to enter a critical time. It is a time for us to reflect upon the work that has been selflessly performed by individuals who have strived to ensure that all Americans are afforded equal rights and opportunities. We are challenged, as well, to contemplate the task that remains incumbent upon us as we move forward.

The efforts at Cornell University to inspire a national commitment to justice are a microcosm for what ought be done on a national level – and what the Andrew Goodman Foundation is doing. Through the recently launched Forward Freedom Campaign, the Andrew Goodman Foundation is commemorating the efforts of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner and all the Freedom Summer Volunteers of 1964. Simultaneously, the Foundation is imploring our generation – the Millenials – to imagine what we can do to forward freedom, thus charging us with the task to advance equal rights and social justice, just as President Kennedy had charged the American people, but a little over 50 years ago.

Though significant gains have been made since the summer of 1964, racial, social, and economic injustices persist throughout the United States. Thus, our challenge as a generation is to seek to both embody and then emulate the spirit of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. The spirit that guided these young men to seek to improve the world around them has become our inheritance. We have the opportunity to realize this potential– just as three young men had 50 years ago.

About the Author: Ross Gitlin is a rising senior at Cornell University, studying in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Ross is currently serving a two-year term on Cornell’s Board of Trustees as the Student-Elected Trustee. Ross was born and raised in New York, NY and attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel School.