by Cynthia Pease
As turbulent as our times are now, the months leading up to Freedom Summer in 1964 were even more troubled; storm clouds brewed in many areas as the destiny of three young men unwound itself.
The country was still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy the previous November.
President Johnson was trying to push through his civil rights bill and using every bit of his famed manipulative powers to do so. He was fighting not only for the bill, but against Barry Goldwater’s Presidential campaign. Another Kennedy, young Teddy, had broken his back in an airplane crash that also involved Senator Birch Bayh.
J. Edgar Hoover and his empire were fanatically trying to get the dirt on Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights activists. King was having his own troubles with a campaign in St. Augustine, Florida. Malcolm X had very publicly left the Nation of Islam and was leveling all kinds of charges against its leader, Elijah Mohammed, putting a target very clearly on his own back. It wasn’t a matter of whether the Nation would eliminate him, but when. The FBI nicely helped by planting stories in newspapers that fueled the already flammable situation.
In the North, a white backlash against all the civil rights campaigns allowed Governor George Wallace of Alabama to get on the Presidential primary ballot in Wisconsin.
In Mississippi, where Freedom Summer volunteers would attempt to teach black voters what they needed to know to pass the registration challenges, five civil rights workers had been murdered in the winter and spring, according to Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters. There had also been whippings, shootings and Klan cross burnings across the state. The State Sovereignty Commission had infiltrated the Freedom School trainings and was reporting back regularly on what the plans were for the voter registration drive.
And a young New York social worker and his wife, Mickey and Rita Schwerner, joined the Congress of Racial Equality and moved to Meridian, Mississippi, to open a field office there.
Murder in Mississippi author Howard Bell gives this brief bio of Schwerner: A graduate of Cornell with a degree in rural sociology, he and Rita were becoming increasingly radicalized by events in the south. Upon landing in Meridian in January 1964, they were successful in setting up a community center and holding voter registration classes. Mickey especially became quickly known to the rising Klan and its Imperial Wizard, Sam Bowers. Bowers was the only person who could give the order to “eliminate” someone and this he did in April. Schwerner was known to the Klan as “Goatee,” and Bowers gave the #4 order to Edgar Ray Killen, a Klan Kleagle (recruiter and organizer).
Schwerner met and became good friends with James Chaney, an African-American who was born in Meridian and had been active in civil rights causes for years despite his young age. He began volunteering with CORE in 1963. Schwerner asked that he be made a full-time, paid staff member, which was approved.
On May 30, Chaney and Schwerner met with the deacons and elders of Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, in Neshoba County to seek permission to use the church as a voter training center. On June 16, while Chaney and Schwerner were in Ohio at the Freedom Summer training camp, the church’s deacons met to discuss the request. Klansmen arrived, hoping to find Goatee there. He wasn’t, so to relieve their hostility, they beat several of the elderly deacons; later they returned to the church and firebombed it in hopes of luring Schwerner back, says Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters.
At the boot camp held at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, the first 200 of an eventual 900 volunteers were being taught the dangers and risks they would face in Mississippi. The vast majority of the volunteers were white college students, and this was intentional. White college students were considered the country’s crowning glory; surely the federal government would protect them and the country would gather behind their efforts.
Indeed, Bob Moses, the architect of Freedom Summer, had written to the Justice Department on more than one occasion asking for federal protection that summer. John Doar, a white attorney in the civil rights division of the Justice Department who had put himself on the line many times in the South, came to the camp to explain why federal protection was not possible. The volunteers were told that the government could not interfere with a state’s police system unless federal laws were broken.
Moses is a fascinating person, an enigmatic man with a Zen-like attitude to life as described by Taylor Branch. Having grown up in Harlem, Moses became a schoolteacher but decided in 1960 that he needed to explore his black identity by going south. A brilliant young man, he had studied at Hamilton College and did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard. He was particularly drawn to the existential philosophy of Albert Camus. He had quietly worked to register voters in Mississippi, witnessing the deaths of black men he had lived and worked with. Some of the young students at the boot camp thought of him as the Jesus of the movement; perhaps his surname is even more appropriate, though he was never as well known as King or Bayard Rustin or the other more familiar names of the civil rights movement.
A 20-year-old student at the boot camp, Andrew Goodman, had joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and volunteered for Freedom Summer in April. He had been detailed to go to Canton, Mississippi, but when Schwerner asked for volunteers to come to Meridian, he changed his plans at the last minute. Along with a few other volunteers, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman left Ohio for Meridian on June 19. On June 21, the three went to Neshoba County to investigate the Mount Zion church bombing.
At around 2 pm that day, they were heading back to Meridian when they were stopped for speeding by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a Klan member. He took them back to Philadelphia and jailed them on the excuse that he had to find a magistrate to settle the speeding ticket. In fact, he used the eight hours he kept them to let Killen know that he had Goatee so Killen could organize Klansmen to come to Philadelphia.