March 11, 2014

RITHOLTZ | A Proper Memorial for Cornellian Civil Rights Martyrs

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On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered outside Philadelphia, Mississippi in Nashoba County. The trio, comprised of one black man and two white men, had come to Mississippi to register black voters during the 1964 Freedom Summer. That day, they were going to visit Longdale, Mississippi to investigate the burning of Mount Zionist Methodist Church — a place that had been designated as a future location for a Freedom School. However, the three activists never made it to the site, as they were arbitrarily arrested for speeding and thrown into Nashoba County Jail. The police officers held the men in jail until around 10 p.m. when they released them into the night. Soon after their release and departure from the prison, the men were pursued by the Klan and murdered.

The three freedom fighters were James Chaney, 21, a native of Mississippi,  Andrew Goodman, 20 and Michael Schwener ’61, 24, both New Yorkers. Two of the activists shared connections to Cornell: Schwerner was a member of the class of 1961 and led the effort to desegregate the Cornell chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi and Goodman’s parents were both Cornellians. To honor their sacrifice, the class of 1961 donated a stained glass window with the portraits of the three men to Sage Hall in 1991. As the fiftieth anniversary of their death approaches, many Cornellians — young and old —  believe the University has not done enough to commemorate these fine men and recognize Cornell’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement.  I stand in firm support of this belief.

On Monday, members of the University and local community gathered together at The Africana Studies and Research Center to hear the proposal of the Cornell Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman Memorial Project. I sat in attendance to learn more about this alumni and student-led project. The project proposes to build a monument on campus to formally honor these three men and remind Cornellians for generations to come of their sacrifice. The memorial would also stand as a symbol for racial harmony and a physical representation of our obligation to serve others. While there is formally no location attached to the project, Dr. Kenneth Clarke, the director of Cornell University Religious Works, welcomed the monument to stand in front of Anabel Taylor Hall, which was a haven for civil rights activists at Cornell during the sixties and seventies.

The ceremony itself moved me, as I listened to generations of Cornellians speak about their own role in the fight for civil rights. I had no idea of the powerful and dangerous work undertaken by so many Cornellians during this period. In the past four years, I have heard a bit about the civil rights struggle on campus through the example of the Willard Straight Takeover, but I had never really encountered the depth of the student involvement. As Cornellians, I believe we could do a better job of remembering and learning from the amazing action undertaken by our fellow Cornellians and community members during this time period.  Our predecessors played a major role in this movement, and their work is largely forgotten on this campus, outside of a few spaces that work to remember.

We talk, at times, about how the civil rights movement affected Cornell, but we fail to recognize the profound impact that Cornellians involved in the movement had outside of this campus. Devoting a place for the remembrance of these selfless individuals is one place to start and can act as a call to action for us all. As educated individuals, we must continue to hold each other accountable for the social justice principles that founded this university. This monument would remind us each and every day of the sacrifices made by Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner and inspire us to continue their legacy.

With the sesquicentennial celebrations approaching and this being the fiftieth anniversary of the death of these martyrs, I believe there is no better time than now to support this project.

Sam Ritholtz is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Sans Pants appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.