February 9, 2021

GUEST ROOM | On Naming a Dormitory

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Titles are symbolic, of course, but they also carry weight. When the buildings on a university campus are named for robber barons and captains of industry, that says something about the institution, and about the purpose of the education we receive. In buildings that bear the name of the highest bidder, are we not being told — perhaps subtly, perhaps brutally — that our post-collegiate life also belongs to whatever entity makes the winning offer?

So it was with real pride that I read that new North Campus dormitories were being named not for mega-donors, but for those whose lives set a stunning and wondrous example. Toni Morrison M.A. ’55. Ruth Bader Ginsberg ’54. To reside in one of those dorms sends a different message: here is a life worth living.  This is how I might live, had I the compassion, and the courage.

It’s in this context that I’m writing to urge that Cornell name one of these dormitories after Michael (Mickey) Schwerner ’61, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.

Working with the Congress of Racial Equality, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman journeyed to the Deep South during ‘Freedom Summer’ of 1964 to help Black citizens — who had been disenfranchised en masse since the 1890s — register to vote. They paid for this work with their lives: slain by a mob of Klansmen outside of Meridian, Mississippi on June 21, 1964. Schwerner was 24 years old. Chaney was 21.  Goodman was 20.

Fifty years later they were posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in a moving ceremony at the White House. As Obama put it, “While they are often remembered for how they died, we honor them today for how they lived – with the idealism and the courage of youth. James, Andrew and Michael could not have known the impact they would have on the civil rights movement or on future generations. And here today, inspired by their sacrifice, we continue to fight for the ideals of equality and justice for which they gave their lives.”  

As we painfully know from recent elections, the franchise is still not something that all citizens can take for granted. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, inspired in part by these slain civil rights activists and their comrades in CORE and SNCC, gave a national guarantee. But that act was eviscerated by the Roberts court in 2013. And the wholesale purging of voter rolls, the denial of the vote to former felons, the systematic elimination of polling places in predominantly Black precincts, the wholesale disqualification of mail-in ballots from predominantly poor and BIPOC districts from Detroit to Georgia, all of this tells us that the work for which Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney gave their lives is still savagely unfinished.

Courtesy of Cornell Digital Library

After Cornell I worked in New York for the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, editing their publication The Bill of Rights Journal. My boss there was Nat Schwerner, Mickey’s father. I spent many afternoons listening to Nat talk about his son.  His pride in the choices Mickey had made. His unending sense of loss. And over the course of long conversations, together we would envision, and mourn, the life Mickey would have lived — and the world he would have created, had he not been taken. My own commitment to a life of activism was not forged in those conversations, but it was deepened, strengthened. I did not possess the courage to risk my life the way Mickey had. But I did want to live like him. So much of what I’ve done in the half-century since leaving Ithaca has been informed by the memory of Mickey Schwerner. That I might leave the world a more just place than I found it. And that my parents might one day be as proud of me as Nat was of his son.

When I was at Cornell, the memory of Mickey Schwerner burned bright, but there was no acknowledgement on our campus of his work, his sacrifice. Later, in 1991, a stained-glass window commemorating the three slain civil rights workers was installed in Sage Chapel, that sunlight might shine through them, onto us, coloring our lives.

Still, there is a larger window we might open here. Cornell University, its students and its professors, played a disproportionately large role in the civil rights movement. This is something that deserves to be honored, celebrated, remembered. I can think of no better way than to name one of our residence halls after Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney.  

Howard A. Rodman ’71 is a former Sun editor in chief. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.