When People Stand Together to Fight Bigotry

This article was originally published in on September 13, 2019.

In “We Are Not Afraid,” Seth Cagin and Philip Dray’s account of the 1964 murders of Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, the authors describe the Mississippi of that era as nothing less than a place of race- and ethnic-based hatred and terror that targeted minorities.

As my colleague Mike Kelly wrote about the murders in 2005, “Goodman and Schwerner were white, college-educated, Jewish, from the New York area. Chaney was a black Baptist from Mississippi. But the three set aside their fears and differences of skin, religion and turf to join together to battle racism.”

The saga of the vicious, racist murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney is often marked as a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights in the Deep South, in part because Goodman and Schwerner were white. Perhaps unlike any racial violence before that, the murders helped bring into focus the truth that the struggle for civil rights, the common struggle against hate and bigotry, is one that we must all take up together.

I have had the deaths of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney on my mind these days, as I have tried to digest the anti-Semitic remarks made in the open by Paterson councilman Michael Jackson, a public servant who has fought as hard as anyone for the civil rights of residents in the city’s beleaguered 1st Ward.

Even so, as Joe Malinconico of Paterson Press reported, during a meeting of the City Council on Tuesday night, Jackson used that derogatory, despicable, phrase “Jew us down” during discussions about a deal to refurbish Hinchliffe Stadium.

“That was meant with no malice,” Jackson said after being called out for his remark, adding that he learned the phrase during his “upbringing.”

Jackson later apologized, but he should be censured by the council nonetheless. If Paterson is trying to build a city open to all peoples, regardless of race, religion or creed, it cannot, it must not, condone anti-Semitic outbursts from any of its public officials.

Indeed, it is in these highly-charged times that our leaders must not stand silent. They must have the courage to speak up with conviction to condemn outrageous, bigoted remarks, no matter who makes them.

If they need inspiration, they could do worse than recall the shared sacrifice of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, remember that they died together that night, Father’s Day, June 21, 1964, were buried together in an earthen dam, and their bodies discovered together, 44 days later.

They were united only by a selfless fight for justice and human rights that are enshrined in our nation’s founding document.

Just as Goodman and Schwerner arrived in Mississippi that “Freedom Summer” to make a difference, to register blacks to vote after decades of having that right denied them, we too must all recall the spirit of “Freedom Summer.”

We too must do our part, by shouting down ignorance and bigotry when and where we see it.

 “Tonight, I’m concerned about the deeper question,” a clearly shaken the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that evening in August of that year after the bodies of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were found.

“It’s not so much who killed those young men but what killed them.”