Living the Legacy of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner 55 Years Later
On June 21, 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The trio was working with the Freedom Summer Project to register African Americans to vote. They had spent the afternoon investigating the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church in the community of Longdale, a possible location for a Freedom School, before the KKK pulled their car over, abducted, and brutally killed them. This year marks the 55th anniversary of their deaths.
While civil rights activists have secured many gains since 1964, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or marriage equality, a lot of the same voter suppression tactics used back then are resurfacing today. This is because some people would like to not only stop our movement forward but even turn back the clock on equal rights that have finally been won. Across the United States, state legislatures are enacting restrictive laws that criminalize incomplete voter registration forms. They are eliminating polling locations in communities of color and on college campuses, and are putting up arbitrary voting barriers like requiring voter ID but rejecting student IDs, to prevent more people from participating in our elections.
This resurgence of voter suppression tactics, reminiscent of the Jim Crow Era, are alarming and require us to take action. Like the thousand volunteers who assembled from all over the country in Mississippi during Freedom Summer to try and right the wrongs of our racist history, young people today are stepping up to the plate once again. They are registering voters and organizing their peers to demand racial justice and to end mass incarceration, especially of Black and Brown people, gun reform, affordable education, reproductive justice, and healthcare, fair treatment for refugees and to prevent more climate change. These students are Black, White, Asian, straight, queer, transgendered, rich and poor. Together they represent the New Civil Rights Movement built on the shoulders of so many other young people that came before them.
A Mississippi native, James Chaney, like many other Civil Rights activists of the 1960s, was first and foremost a son and a brother, and just 21 years old when the KKK murdered him. Michael Schwerner was a 25-year-old New York native and social worker who traveled to Mississippi with his wife to organize voter registration drives aimed at enfranchising African Americans. Andrew Goodman, also a New Yorker, was 20, loved drama and was studying Anthropology at Queens College. All three young men were ordinary people who took extraordinary action so that democracy would work for everyone.
Young people have often been at the forefront of change. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hammer, Medgar Evers, Dolores Huerta, Bernice Sims, and countless others were young people who stood up to injustice not because they were heroes but because they believed a simple fundamental truth, that we are all created equal. They demanded a better world built on that belief and left behind legacies which create today’s platform for the next generation of leaders.
No one could have imagined what our country would look like 55 years after the Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner murders. Today, we find ourselves still fighting for the rights of the young, the poor and people of color to actively participate in our democracy and elect representatives that align with their values. We must embrace our future, while never forgetting our past, and continue to live the legacy of those that fought and died for our rights so that those who come after can benefit from a stronger and more vibrant democracy. As Andy Goodman once wrote, “the road to freedom must be uphill, even if it is arduous and frustrating.” And, uphill we must continue to go!
About the Author
David Goodman is the brother of Andrew Goodman, the President of The Andrew Goodman Foundation, and a member of its Board of Trustees.