Steve Schwerner doesn’t waste his time worrying about the actions of evildoers like Edgar Ray Killen and Cecil Price. What he does question is why good, decent men, when confronted with injustice, don’t do more to stop it.
A retired history professor and dean of students at Antioch College in Ohio, Schwerner will deliver the opening address Friday night at this year’s 13th annual Underground Railroad Public History Conference at Russell Sage College in Troy. This year’s event is in part dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, which Schwerner remembers all too well.
It was in June of 1964 that Schwerner’s younger brother Mickey and two other men, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were killed in Philadelphia, Miss., during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Field workers for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the three men were missing for 44 days before their bodies were finally found buried in a 15-foot earthen dam after having been murdered by as many as 22 men, including Killen, a Klan leader, and Price, deputy sheriff of Neshoba County.
“The thing I get incredibly annoyed and frustrated with is the federal government, which couldn’t be bothered to protect Civil Rights workers, and the sovereign state of Mississippi, which spied on those Civil Rights workers and anybody else in the state involved in that kind of work,” said Schwerner. “My real anger is aimed at the higher-ups who did nothing to protect these people, who were American citizens doing perfectly legal activity.”
Underground Railroad Public History Conference
WHAT: Opening address by Steve Schwerner
WHERE: Bush Memorial, Russell Sage College, Troy
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday
HOW MUCH: $10
MORE INFO: www.undergroundrailroadhistory.org
Schwerner, who was two years older than Mickey, will speak about his brother and the two other men that were killed that summer. He doesn’t, however, dwell on any of the intimate family details of the tragic incident.
“I’ll talk about the significance of the event, and the history around it, but I don’t answer stupid personal questions,” he said by phone from his home in Brooklyn last week. “It’s really not that important for me to say that Mickey was a great guy. We’ve learned that the Klan had decided to kill him as early as late March or April because of what he was doing. He was working for black people, he was Jewish, which for the Klan meant he was part of the next hierarchy down, and he had a goatee, which was the Klan’s nickname for him. It didn’t matter to the Klan what kind of guy he was.”
For the record, Mickey Schwerner, who headed south that spring with his wife, Rita, was, by most accounts, a very likable guy. As a young boy he was a friend of Robert Reich, later the U.S. Secretary of Labor for Bill Clinton. In his 2013 documentary, “Inequality for All,” the diminutive Reich talks about how Schwerner protected him from bullies. Others have referred to him as “good-natured and full of life and ideas.” The family had a pet cocker spaniel that Mickey named Ghandi.
Schwerner was 24 when he was killed. His brother remembers that the family did understand the inherent risk involved for a Civil Rights worker heading into the Deep South in 1964.
“Nobody was thinking that they were going to get killed, but there had been danger involved for anyone working on Civil Rights in the South since the beginning of slavery,” said Schwerner. “We knew the history. We knew there were beatings, church bombings and house burnings. Medgar Evers had been murdered. We knew there would be danger lurking everywhere.”
An aspect of the case that Schwerner does dwell on is the race of the three victims. Chaney was a black man but Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were white.
“If Mickey and Andy had been African-Americans their murder might have never made the newspapers,” said Schwerner. “When they were looking for their bodies they dug up a dozen or so other bodies of African-Americans and the national news didn’t cover that. But because two of these bodies were white, and from New York, that made it a national event.”
Schwerner was also disappointed in the lack of initiative demonstrated by President John F. Kennedy.
“Civil rights was an embarrassment to the Kennedy administration,” he said. “They’re dealing with the Cold War, and it’s hard to justify our democracy when Bull Connor is turning fire hoses and police dogs on 15-year-old kids. I never really got a sense of any sympathy from them, or that they cared about the movement that much.”
Schwerner, who was a graduate student at Queens College in 1964, lives with his wife in Brooklyn near their two daughters and four grandchildren. Both of his parents have died, and Rita Schwerner Bender, Mickey’s widow, remarried and became a Civil Rights attorney in the Seattle area.
This weekend’s conference will include workshops on Saturday, including a presentation by Hoftstra University’s Alan Singer on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.