News

Reflections on 1964 Mississippi Murders

Excerpted from Andy and Me, an unpublished essay by Nancy Jainchill

1964-06-15 photo1 Oxford OH

A steamy summer day in August 1964, riding the Harlem and Hudson suburban line from Manhattan to White Plains, NY on my way to visit family for a cookout in the suburbs, I read about the deaths of Andy Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner. Andy Goodman’s image, and those of the other two, were small, rectangular pictures—like the ones you might take—four for a quarter—in a photo booth at the 5 and 10 Cent store with a friend on a Saturday afternoon. I was entering my senior year in high school that fall, younger than the youngest Freedom Summer volunteer, yet I wanted to be there. I was angry. I was angry that white people had it better than black people by virtue of being white.  I was angry that I couldn’t go to Mississippi to register voters, like the year before I’d been angry when my parents didn’t allow me to join Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.  Over 250,000 people made it there, including my Aunt Helen. Bob Dylan was there, and so was Joan Baez, and they sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom.” I watched the march, the swell of people coming towards me through the television screen, their voices singing straight to my heart. I felt left out of history.

More than forty years after that train ride to White Plains, I am living in Woodstock, New York. In my study, where the windows overlook the vegetable garden, I re-read the newspaper articles that I’ve retrieved from the New York Times archives on Freedom Summer. The media has been ablaze with the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who boarded buses to confront Jim Crow laws in the Deep South.  That was three years before Freedom Summer: getting black people in Mississippi registered to vote; I remembered watching the events unfold on TV, and as always, I wanted to go and fight the good fight.

“You aren’t going anywhere,” my mother said. “You’re not even seventeen years old.”

I read the description of the events over and over again, just as I did all those years ago, on the train with my parents and the shopping bag full of chocolate and cinnamon rugelach. I couldn’t imagine what it was like on that Mississippi road staring into impenetrable hatred.

As a Northerner, it seems to me that racism through the sixties and seventies was a hard, unspoken barrier in the North, while openly violent in the South. As far as I was concerned, Mississippi was a foreign country. It wasn’t just Mississippi. The South, the deep South, where hatred was overt and legalized, where black people went to bathrooms designated for “coloreds,” where they ate in different restaurants, went to different schools, had to sit in the back of the bus or on separate cars of the train, was another world. Southerners talked different and dressed different. I was too young to be impacted by Emmett’s Till’s murder, but I wasn’t too young to watch and understand when black people sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter which, like other lunch counters, had a strict Whites-Only policy, or when James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi accompanied by the military—to ensure he’d live to graduate.

Up North we tried to keep our prejudices concealed, and this kept our behaviors mostly more in check. We had no problem sitting next to each other on buses and subways, yet our lives were separate. Mostly, whites didn’t stay on the subway past Ninety-Sixth Street because they didn’t live that far north. People of color lived uptown.  Sometimes the divide wasn’t so clear: that’s why I couldn’t go past the end of my apartment building—poor people, usually nonwhites—lived on that end of the block.

Andy Goodman’s face stared out at me from the newspaper. I knew that he’d grown up on the upper West Side of Manhattan, just blocks from where I lived with my family. I can’t imagine that he expected to die. That doesn’t happen to twenty year olds.  I remember it made no sense that just a few years older than me, he was dead, and I was on my way to a cookout.

In the sixties, I found an identity in civil rights, in Black Power, in others’ struggles. I read Man’s Fate by Andre Malraux and it made sense to me. You had to have a reason to die just as you had to have a reason to live. I didn’t want to die, but I wanted to believe that strongly in something.

If Andy Goodman were alive today, he would be eligible for Medicare. I wonder if he would have succumbed to an ordinary existence much like mine. I wonder if he would have settled down to a family life, a comfortable home, become the good guy with liberal leanings. I’ve had conversations with Andy Goodman, and of course I’ve done most of the talking, sharing my doubts and concerns about where hope has gone. I’ve told him that finding purpose  doesn’t come as easily as it used to—and I don’t know if that’s a matter of age, or if there are too many things that need fixing and what needs fixing seems too big.

In less than a week I will be going to Mississippi with Lee Hancock, a colleague and friend, whom I met while we were both at Bennington College, completing an MFA in the Writing Seminars Program. We are going to Mississippi to pay tribute to Andy Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner—and to the others—ordinary people who became civil rights heroes, forcing the nation to extend voting rights to all Americans. Lee is a seventh generation Mississippian and a child of the civil rights era. I am a native New Yorker and a veteran of 60s activism as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. Both of us writers, we hope that the story of our trip will help ensure that the movement’s accomplishments aren’t forgotten, nor its purpose lost. And to paraphrase what David Goodman said to me in a recent conversation—Tikkum Olam—to continue the healing.

About the Author: Nancy Jainchill is a psychologist living and working in New York with her husband and two dogs. She has published extensively in the field of treatment for adolescents with substance use problems, and is currently working on a memoir.