April 28, 2014

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT: Remembering Three Civil Rights Heroes

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By ROSS GITLIN

From the earliest days of our founding, Cornell University has maintained a commitment to advancing civil rights. This is remarkable given the era in which our school was established. In 1865 — the same year as our founding — Abraham Lincoln had just approved the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution that formally abolished slavery. Yet, even in the midst of this era of segregation, our University affirmed its motto to be “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” When Ezra Cornell was asked whether an African-American student could attend his University, he simply replied: “Send him over if he is smart and can make it in the world.”

Over 45 years later, our third President J.G. Schurman, reaffirmed the University’s commitment to “any person” when he said: “At Cornell, all University doors must remain open to all students, irrespective of race or color or creed or social standing or pecuniary condition.” This endorsement to ensuring access for all students, in addition to our land grant mission, has distinguished Cornell in preparing its students to tackle the greatest issues confronting society.

Of course, eloquent principles and soaring aspirations do not always translate into reality, and, just a few weeks ago, we commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover. This event in our history reminds us that though we have an unwavering commitment to achieving an inclusive environment at Cornell, we have at times fallen short throughout our history. The Straight Takeover reminds us further of our task to ensure that every student feels welcomed and supported on our campus.

Just a few years earlier in the decade when Willard Straight Hall was taken over, a young man named Michael Schwerner ’61 graduated from Cornell. While here, Schwerner led a successful effort to desegregate the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, as Greek life had mirrored, to some extent, the segregationist patterns that still existed in America. In 1964, Schwerner travelled to Mississippi for Freedom Summer to assist with voter registration. Throughout his time in the south, Schwerner was blasted with hateful speech, called derogatory names and received hate mail and imminent death threats, but he continued to fulfill his commitment to equality. During that summer, on June 16, the Ku Klux Klan torched Mt. Zion Methodist Church, in a violent response to Schwerner’s request to the church that it make its facilities available as a freedom school. Days later, when Schwerner travelled with two other civil rights organizers — James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — to Mt. Zion Methodist Church to investigate the attack, the young men were apprehended by the Deputy Sheriff and thrown in jail. When they were finally released from jail, at approximately 10:00 p.m., the Klan had mobilized and shot and killed James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The murder of these civil rights workers is seen as a monumental event in the landscape of the civil rights struggle. Now, nearly 50 years following their deaths, a group here at Cornell composed of alumni, students, staff and faculty, is advocating to create a prominent outdoor memorial outside of Anabel Taylor Hall to honor these three men and other Cornellians involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Memorials matter. A.D. White, in his final Annual Report to Cornell University’s Board of Trustees in 1884-1885, said: “Memorials exercise a great and steady educating influence in the domain of morals.” The potential memorial that would honor the work of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and others would serve an enduring purpose. This is because these young men embodied the very spirit of Cornell, founded upon the recognition of equal rights and access for all, ideals that are the bedrock of our nation. I fully support the proposed memorial, as I believe it can serve as a reminder to all Cornellians of both the sacrifices that have been made — as well as the work that still needs to be done — to promote equality and justice.

As our academic year draws to a close and we approach the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer and the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, I challenge us to critically reflect upon how we can embody the same spirit embraced by three young men over 50 years ago. Our approaching Sesquicentennial allows us time to inquire about, and perhaps internalize, the charge that accompanies our identity as Cornellians — to work to improve the world and to address our most pressing problems. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner fulfilled that charge, and our generation of Cornellians should aspire and strive to do the same here in Ithaca, as well as beyond.

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