Remembering James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman

As I mentioned a few weeks ago this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Freedom Summer was the effort in the summer of 1964 to "crack" Mississippi, the most violently racist state in the US, by starting up Freedom Schools and registering black voters.

At the start of the summer, while volunteers were being trained in Ohio, civil rights workers James Chaney and Michael Schwerner along with volunteer Andrew Goodman drove south to Mississippi to investigate a church burning outside Philadelphia, MS.

The trip was dangerous. The fact that James, who was black, would be traveling with two whites, Michael and Andrew, would be a clear sign that they were civil rights workers. And the Klan in Mississippi was gearing up to send a message to the Freedom Summer workers who were about to descend upon the state. The situation in Mississippi was tense and volatile.  

On June 20th, James, Michael and Andrew safely got to the civil rights office in Meridian, Mississippi. The next morning, on June 21st, they drove north toward Philadelphia to investigate the church burning. That afternoon, just as they were starting to head back toward Meridian, the men were stopped and arrested by deputy sheriff Cecil Price from Neshoba County Mississippi who was also a member of Ku Klux Klan. James, Michael and Andrew were held in jail until nightfall and were released around 10:30 pm.

The reason for the delayed release was so that the Klan could get a plan in place to hijack the civil rights workers. Leaving the jail James, Michael and Andrew drove south on Highway 19 back toward Meridian. Cars packed with men were waiting for them. Finding themselves pursued, James, Michael and Andrew raced through the night down Highway 19.

They were eventually overtaken. Captured, James, Michael and Andrew were driven back up Highway 19 a couple of miles until the caravan of cars reached an unmarked dirt road that led off into the woods. There in the dark woods, just off Highway 19, James, Michael and Andrew were murdered.

Their bodies were discovered many weeks later, on August 4. Today, fifty years ago.

A few weeks ago, at the start of our family vacation, we were traveling through Mississippi and were spending the night in Meridian. Given that we were in Meridian and that this was the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer and of the deaths of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, I wanted to drive north on Highway 19 to visit the murder site and pay my respects.

So I got up early, leaving Jana and the boys sleeping in the hotel, and drove north toward Philadelphia on Highway 19. For the first part the road was four lanes, designated at one point by a sign saying "Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Memorial Highway." Eventually, the highway narrowed to two lanes and the trees came in close. Very much like the highway would have looked in 1964.

I drove past the point where James, Michael and Andrew were overtaken and captured (Highway 492). From that point, I was retracing the last moments of their lives, driving north toward the turn off where they were taken down a dirt road and into the woods.

The turn off is marked by a historical marker, pictured above, on the edge of Highway 19.

I turned down the road and reached the intersection where the murders occurred. I stopped the car and got out.

There are a few houses along this road now, but at the intersection the area is still wooded. I stood there looking into the trees and tried to comprehend what had happened in this place fifty years ago.

Nothing seemed to mark the spot. Just the historical marker down on the highway. But then my eye caught a small cairn of stones, pine cones and flowers at the edge of the trees.

I walked over and examined the stones and flowers. Bits of paper were mixed in, notes written to James, Michael and Andrew. Remembering them. Thanking them. This is the small unofficial memorial that has been created by those who drove off the highway to visit the place where James, Michael and Andrew had died.

I sat quietly and reflectively, alone by that small pile of stones, flowers, pine cones and paper. Eventually the pressure to get back to the hotel asserted itself. I needed to get back to the family. We had a long drive ahead of us that day.

I rose and scanned the ground, finding what I was looking for. I stood over the cairn and said a prayer. Then I knelt down and added my stone the the pile.

The breeze whispered in the pine trees, and I whispered their names with it.

"James, Michael, Andrew."

"Thank you."

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7 thoughts on “Remembering James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman”

  1. That must have been one numinous drive, Richard. Very, very moved by this post - thank you. And thank God for these three young martyrs.

  2. Thank you, Richard, for taking us to that place and time. When I was pastor of First Presbyterian in Yellow Springs, Ohio we had the privilege of having Michael's brother, Steve, to speak to our congregation one Sunday morning in 1997 (I think, or 1998). Hearing him speak of the anguish of his family, and the passion of Michael for justice, was an inspiring experience. That summer we saw a 'surge' of a non-violent type to fight injustice and inequality. I wish I had that kind of courage.

  3. I've been preaching my way through the Genesis readings of the RCL this summer. This coming Sunday is the story of Joseph being abducted by his brothers and sold into slavery. After reading this post, I'm seeing a lot of parallels between that story and the story of the civil rights movement. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Richard, I really appreciate this moving account of your experience. In 1964 we moved to Jackson, MS where I served as the pulpit minister for the Capitol Street Church of Christ. When the news reported their disappearance, some of my fellow preachers said they believed the three were hiding in Cuba, and that all this was a conspiracy to make the South look bad. When their bodies were pulled from the earthen dam, the silence was amazing. In fact, one of the greatest tragedies was the profound silence in Southern churches. Actually, many had "baptized the evil." Now, in my later years, I've written about my experiences living on the inside of the fundamentalist environment during that era. I cover from 1932 to around 1965 - depicting the effects of the Great Depression and the reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. My work is still being proofed and yet unpublished.

  5. Theo,
    An alumnus of my Midwestern Bible College (Independent Christian Church) attended during the civil rights era and had a memory of someone behind the chapel pulpit make reference to Martin "Lucifer" King Jr. He said that our movement had much to atone for and much work to do if we truly desired to demonstrate a kingdom where there is "neither Jew nor gentile".

    That sounds like a very interesting read. If you remember, please reply to this comment with details when the book becomes available as I'd be interested in picking it up.

  6. Thank you Richard. I was reminded of this story from Henri Nouwen. It appears in a collection of some of his little-known writings collated after his death called 'The Road to Peace'. If you haven't read it, I think you would really love it.

    'In Vicksburg, Mississippi, there was a black man standing by the roadside, keeping a safe rather timid distance
    from the roadway. Charles, age twenty, my first friend. After climbing into the car he said, “God has heard my prayer. He sent you as an angel from heaven. I’ve been standing here for hours and nobody would pick me up. The white man only
    wants to run at me and push me off the road. When you hitchhike you take your life in your hands, but I want to go to Selma. I made a cross in the sand with my stick, and I prayed to God that he would bring me to Selma to help my
    people. He heard my prayer.” As we drove through the night Charles told me about the dark days of Mississippi.

    He’d been imprisoned five times in his fight for freedom. He’d demonstrated with thousands of others, for the integration of schools, courts, restaurants, and shops. “Never go alone. Go with thousands. The more there are in jail the sooner you’ll get out. They have to feed you, and that’s expensive; they have to have room for you, and that’s scarce; they need guards and there aren’t enough. Go with thousands. That’ll cost them money and they’ll just have to release you.”

    …And the whites? “Aren’t there any white people who are helping you?”

    “Oh, some high school kids, but it’s dangerous for them. Their father loses his job and the boy gets teased at school. A ‘white nigger’ is more hated than we are.”

    Slowly but surely it dawned on me that Charles was turning me into a black man. Gradually I felt my innocence and unquestioned sense of freedom disappear. This country is your enemy. You’re riding in a car with a black man, your licence plate betrays you as a Freedom Rider on your way to Selma. “They hate the guts out of you.” And the fear began to take shape deep in my heart. At first I dismissed it with “It won’t get that bad,” but it anchored itself deeper and deeper
    within me. The fear gave me new eyes, new ears, and a new mouth.' (Henri Nouwen, ‘We Shall Overcome’)

  7. I visited the murder site today, January 19, 2015 MLK day (or in MS RE Lee/MLK day). I'm retired, visiting the Gulf Coast (Bay Saint Louis) to escape the Chicago cold for week. I spent last night in a hotel in Blytheville, AR and decided to take a slight detour through Koscuisko (Charlie Musselwhite's birthplace) and I also wanted to see Philadelphia knowing its history re: civil rights, Reagan campaign. I found the turnoff on CR 515 and a few hundred yards west is the intersection with another county road (482, I think) where the murders took place. I found no shrine to the martyred civil rights workers but I did find, or rather my dog found, the corpses of two dogs against the embankment at the intersection. From the looks of the remains they had been there for quite some time but they were in full view of anyone...not covered or back in the weeds. I took a photo if you're interested in seeing it. This is a profoundly evil place.

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