After 50 years, the names still resonate with the griefs of a lifetime: Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman.
For those laboring in the miserable heat of Mississippi’s “freedom summer,” the disappearance of the three civil rights workers cast a long shadow, even as hundreds of volunteers from across the northern states came to register voters and to establish community centers.
The awesome power of the United States government seemed very distant in those early years as the national leadership struggled with civil rights legislation. Down in Mississippi, there were age-old patterns of discrimination and a power structure that was willing to fight for what it had.
Beyond the violence and threats, authorities arrested the young men and women protesting for equality and justice in society.
There was pettiness, too, with the snubs and cranky clumsiness of authority. In Baton Rouge, the city’s pool was to be closed rather than integrated. The pool was cracked, the authorities said, because of an earthquake — in Alaska.
Yet memory of those days is also freighted with the redeeming grace of the individuals who rose above the obstacles before them.
“There was real terror in Mississippi,” activist Roy DeBerry told The Associated Press of his experience meeting with young civil rights workers from the North. In his hometown of Holly Springs, DeBerry had to address the soda jerk at the drugstore as “sir,” because the teenager was white.
DeBerry had never interacted socially with a white person, but at age 16 he became an activist, working with Aviva Futorian, then 26, one of the idealistic young people who answered the ring of freedom’s bell. She stayed that summer and fall, teaching and working for a better future not just for the state of Mississippi but for the nation.
The two were friends for 50 years, Futorian helping DeBerry become a student at her alma mater, Brandeis University. She became a lawyer and he worked in government and higher education; looking back, the experience of the movement changed their lives — and was part of a fulcrum upon which the nation turned.
“If it hadn’t been for the veterans of Freedom Summer, there would be no Barack Obama,” Georgia Congressman John Lewis, wrote in his memoirs. Lewis’ own scars from a beating during the Freedom Rides the next year show the opposition was deadly serious.
The optimistic young people, white and black, of Freedom Summer did not have to be told that by then. The bodies of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, of New York, and James Chaney, of Mississippi, were pulled from an earthen dam where their murderers tried to hide them.
They should be remembered as heroes of Freedom Summer.