On June 21, 1964, Michael Schwerner ’61 and two friends, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, were murdered in Meridian, Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan for their work registering black voters there. The murders focused national and international attention on the brutal tactics used by opponents of the civil rights movement. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of their deaths, and to urge students to take advantage of the right to vote which Schwerner and his friends died trying to secure, a coalition of black and Jewish student groups — Schwerner and Goodman were Jewish, Chaney was black — held a non-partisan rally on Ho Plaza yesterday afternoon, entitled “Vote for Hope.”
“As American citizens, we often take for granted that we have the right to vote, but we want to remind everyone that people had to die to guarantee this right,” said Justin Davis ’07, explaining the purpose of the rally.
“We’re not here to shove [voting] down your throat, but we do want you to understand why you should vote,” he said in his speech.
Davis and Dan Greenwald ’05, President of the Cornell-Israel Political Action Committee (CIPAC), both gave passionate speeches which attracted a small crowd. The rally, sponsored the NAACP, the Multicultural Living Learning Unit (MCLLU), Black Students United, Cornell Hillel, and CIPAC, was coordinated with an evening showing of “Mississippi Burning,” the critically acclaimed 1988 film based on the murders of Schwerner and his friends.
While he was a student at Cornell, Schwerner demonstrated a commitment to racial justice. A rural sociology major, he fought successfully to get a black student accepted as a pledge in his fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi.
Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were volunteers for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group founded in 1942 which used non-violent protest tactics of civil disobedience to fight segregation throughout the South. After helping to organize the historic 1963 March on Washington — which featured Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech — CORE made plans for a “Freedom Summer” in 1964 to increase the miniscule turnout among black voters in the Deep South.
“In the sixties in Mississippi, 42 percent of the population was black, but only two percent voted,” Davis told the crowd.
In January 1964, Schwerner and his friends were sent to the eastern Mississippi city of Meridian to prepare for the Freedom Summer by registering black voters there. But their organizing efforts with local black leaders drew the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan. On June 21, 1964 the three men were returning from an event at a black church in a nearby town when they were stopped on a back road and shot to death by a group of Klansmen. Their buried bodies were located two months later after an intensive FBI investigation personally ordered by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. One of the Klansmen who participated in the murderers confessed later in 1964 and the trial of the men he named as accomplices went all the way to the Supreme Court. A few of the men were sentenced to prison terms of up to ten years, but most were acquitted due to insufficient evidence.
Davis began his speech at the rally by providing a chronology of these events, before moving on to talk about the theme of the rally.
“Why must we vote? We should vote for hope, because if we don’t say something, if we don’t make our voices heard, who will?” Davis asked.
Following Davis’s speech, Greenwald expanded on the historical connections between the Jewish and black communities. He noted that both Jews and blacks had experienced great historical persecution, but stressed that “we talk about a Jewish-black alliance… [primarily] because Jews and blacks have stood together in fighting persecution.”
Greenwald underlined the rally’s theme by issuing a challenge to students.
“When we don’t exercise a muscle, it gets weaker. When we don’t exercise the right to vote, the same thing happens. We can sit back and take what we have for granted … or we can vote,” he said.
After Greenwald’s speech, Davis opened the microphone up to people in the crowd to explain their feelings on the importance of voting in their lives.
“If you’re a citizen over 18, and you don’t vote, I don’t want to hear you complain about the results of this election,” said Shawna Evers ’06, vice-president of the Cornell chapter of the NAACP.
Brock Pooler ’05, a member of Navy ROTC, reminded the audience to remember the military when casting their vote.
“The decision that you make on November 2nd will affect the lives of all our servicemen over in the Persian Gulf,” and throughout the world, he said.
Patrick Young ’06, president of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, made a separate point, when he insisted that, “democracy doesn’t start and end on November 2nd.”v “The only time we talk about voting is every four years, [but] we can’t let the country go on autopilot between elections,” he added.
Both Davis and Greenwald said later that the rally had been a success. Standing together after the rally, they agreed that, as Greenwald put it, “This event shows that the black and Jewish communities at Cornell want to have a productive and friendly relationship with one another.”
Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Sun Staff Writer