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We are not afraid May 25, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history.
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Stained glass window honoring the three murdered civil rights activists

I am the organizer of a “History Discussion Meetup Group” in Asheville that has, in fact, had only limited success. Our topics so far have been: Western North Carolina in the Civil War; Cortez and the Conquest of the Aztecs; the Industrial Revolution in England; and the Civil Rights Movement. Next month: the Vietnam War. That may be our last meeting. People are just too busy to do the advance reading that makes these discussions possible.

Last night, our meeting about the civil rights movement was attended by myself and by Jack, who was a member of CORE in Cincinnati in the early 60s. He and his wife had an interesting assignment. When a black person or black couple attempted to, say, reserve a bowling lane in the local alley and were told there was no room available, Jack and his former wife (who are white) would then call the bowling alley and see if they could make a reservation. If they could, then racial discrimination was proven and perhaps steps could be taken to force the establishment to open its doors.

A month ago I’d gone down to the Buncombe County public library and looked for books about the civil rights movement. I picked out two. One was a biography of Martin Luther King and the other was a book entitled We Are Not Afraid, authored by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, published 1988 and since reissued in new editions. The King biography turned out to be tedious—not a reflection on MLK but on the author. (There have been many biographies of him.) I turned to the other book, which had immediately gripped my attention anyway: the cover had photographs of three men in their early 20s, one black (James Chaney) and the other two white (Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner). Their faces showed something that absolutely could not be defeated, even though they were murdered by the Klan and its associates and buried deep in an earthen dam.

The episode has been publicized in many ways, in movies and books and folk songs. I had heard about it before, but now I read about the events of June 21, 1964, in all their detail. I read of the three civil rights workers visiting the site of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, which had recently been burned down by white extremists because it was a meeting place for civil rights groups. I experienced the hot, humid summer of east-central Mississippi, the terror of the lone vehicle with its three occupants as it was pursued down lonely country highways after the visit to the church—and ultimately they were stopped, imprisoned, set free only on a pretext, then quickly stopped again according to prearranged plans with a Klan murder squad. The occupants of the vehicle were shot. Chaney was apparently severely beaten before he was killed. Goodman and Schwerner were quickly shot.

You can read more about it here. There is a lot of information about the events, and I’m not inclined to try to recount them in condensed fashion. What I want to communicate is the reason why this seemed important to me. There have been a lot of protests over various important matters during my lifetime, such as the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. But the “Freedom Summer” events of 1964 involved a special courage that is particularly inspiring to me. Here the black citizens of the Deep South and the white kids from the North literally risked their lives in the face of a virulent racism that expressed itself in beatings, firebombings, and lynchings. And quite a few of them did pay with their lives.

And that courage is very important to me.

Memorial to Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner


1. Thomas Stazyk - May 26, 2011

Thanks for a thought provoking post. I wonder if young people today even know enough about what is going on in the world to get passionate enough to make a stand much less a sacrifice.

PS I hope your discussion group keeps going!

Jenny - May 27, 2011

Well, sometimes I feel alienated from the younger generation, but on the other hand I think young people are often capable of great idealism. The situation with the civil rights movement in the 60s involved some special circumstances. The racism in the South was so atrocious that people became really angry when they saw the televised images. Also, Gandhi was a more recent memory, and many people in the movement were deeply influenced by his philosophy of nonviolence. Thanks for your good wishes about my discussion group—we’ll see how it goes!

2. brian - June 6, 2011

My mother’s family is from that part of Mississippi. My great aunt Lessie was on the jury of the “Mississippi Burning” trial. The Klan people threatened her life if she voted for a conviction, but she did anyway. My uncle told me about going to visit her once and a pair of US marshals stepping out from the woods with guns pointed at him wanting to know who he was. My dad was sent to Mobile as an FBI agent towards the end of the civil rights period (where he met my mom). The agents who had worked on the case told him about coming to Mississippi and no one would talk to them or maybe even serve food when they went in a restaurant. Whether they wanted to or not everyone was really intimidated. Made it very difficult to investigate at first.

I saw this article recently that really gives you a graphic idea of the courage people had to have to go into that kind of environment:


Jenny - June 6, 2011

That is a very powerful piece about Zwerg, Brian. How do people find that kind of courage? It’s nearly impossible to imagine, and yet they somehow do it. And your great aunt was very brave as well, and your dad. The world they were going up against had a component of true evil.

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