February 4, 2005

The Case of Schwerner '61

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Michael Schwerner ’61 and two of his friends, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were murdered outside of Meridian, Mississippi by a white supremacist mob on June 21, 1964.

After graduating from Cornell, Schwerner worked as a social worker in New York City, his hometown. He and his wife Rita Levant were members of the Congress on Racial Equality. CORE, founded in 1942 by a group of students in Chicago, is a pacifist organization deeply influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. The organization hoped to mimic Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign against British rule in India in the civil rights movement. Today CORE directs its attention to the problems of inner-city ghettos.

In January 1964 Michael and Rita Schwerner became CORE field-workers in Meridian, Mississippi. They were working to encourage and register African-Americans to vote. The day of the triple murder, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were visiting Mt. Zion Methodist Church. The church had been bombed by the Ku Klux Klan because it was going to be used as a Freedom School. A total of 37 African-American churches were bombed in the summer of 1964.

Established by CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Freedom Schools were run by volunteers and taught a curriculum that included African-American history. There were 30 Freedom Schools throughout Mississippi, teaching over 3,000 students in the summer of 1964. Over 80 of the Freedom School volunteers were beaten or killed by mobs or police officers.

Schwerner was originally enrolled at Michigan State University but transferred to Cornell after one year. He majored in rural sociology. Schwerner’s commitment to civil justice showed during his Cornell days when he successfully fought to have an African-American student pledge Alpha Epsilon Pi, his fraternity.

The deaths of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman have been memorialized here at Cornell with a stained glass window in Sage Chapel. This window serves as a reminder that “many had to give their lives in the struggle for greater justice,” as President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 said in his Jan. 17 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speech.

The Michael Schwerner Activist Award, funded by the Gleitsman Foundation, recognizes students who have taken leadership roles in efforts to solve issues of inequality and injustice. The Foundation was established by Alan Gleistman ’51. “Michael Schwerner [is] a role model of mine who dedicated his life to social justice,” said Natalie Bridgeman ’99, the first Cornellian to win the national award.

The men’s deaths were also remembered in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, which is based on their murders.

On Sept. 27, the “Vote for Hope” non-partisan voting rally commemorated the 40th anniversary of the three men’s deaths. That rally was co-sponsored by the Cornell NAACP, the Multicultural Living Learning Unit, Black Students United, Cornell Hillel, and the Cornell-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Both Schwerner and Goodman were Jewish. “[Schwerner is a reminder] that people had to die to guarantee this right,” said Justin Davis ’07, a residential advisor in the Multicultural Living Learning Unit.

Archived article by Rebecca Shoval
Sun Staff Writer