February 11, 2021


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If not now, when… for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman?

Our hyper-polarized nation is once again passing through what President Abraham Lincoln called a “fiery trial.” To state that democracy itself is under attack is no longer a hyperbolic, polemical, or rhetorical sentiment.

In a few short years, we’ve adopted state-level photo ID voter suppression laws, have had politicians attempt to nullify certified election results and witnessed an open insurrection against our Constitution and democratic way of life. Over winter break we all watched as a violent mob stormed the Capitol. Does anyone believe we’ve seen the last of this?

It’s time for Cornell to make a powerful statement on behalf of democratic values by appropriately honoring a Cornell hero and his two martyred comrades who died for our democracy.

I am referring to the late Michael Schwerner, ’61, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. These men were murdered in cold blood by the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan in 1964 while working on a Freedom Summer voter registration project. 

I am suggesting that Cornell establish an outdoor memorial for these heroes that informs Cornell’s campus culture and educational landscape. More than ever, the story of these brave young men needs to be remembered, pondered and passed along. The existing remembrance, a memorial window in a dark transept of Sage Chapel, is well-intended, but insufficient.

Schwerner ’61 had also led the effort to desegregate Cornell’s fraternities. Goodman, while not a Cornell graduate was also part of the greater Cornell family. His parents, aunt and uncle were all Cornell alumni. James Chaney, a Mississippi native,was a committed civil rights activist and mentor. History has made him part of the Cornell family.  He stood with and shared the fate of two other young men, both of whom had deep Cornell roots. Their names are no longer separable. These three died for democracy on a dark and lonely Mississippi highway. The Voting Rights Act was only one of their legacies. 

Other colleges have already led the way in honoring these young men. The University of Wisconsin, which Goodman attended for one freshman semester, now has a permanent outdoor display that celebrates the courageous example that these three young men had set. New York’s Queens College, Goodman’s alma mater, honors the three with a bell-tower. President Obama honored their memory with posthumous Medals of Freedom. 

Meanwhile, Cornell’s stained-glass remembrance remains sequestered in a chapel that most students rarely visit. It takes a committed student to even find the window.

Beginning in 2014, a five-year effort was started by the Cornell Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman Memorial Project to create an outdoor memorial to these freedom fighters gathered tremendous campus support, but ultimately went nowhere despite the endorsement of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-G.A.) and other civil rights icons. Yet, a memorial to the victims of the tragic 1967 fire in a Cornell residence hall was hurried to completion after a New York Times Magazine article reminded the world of a catastrophe none of us can ever forget. More recently, in the blink of an eye, dorms were renamed in honor of two distinguished alums, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison M.A. ’55 and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg ’54, soon after they had passed away. Both of these acts of remembrance were moving and meaningful. They made me proud to be a Cornellian.

When Cornell resolves to do something, the project gets done. Let’s now honor these three heroes of American democracy with an outdoor memorial that will remind generations of students of their courage and inspirational commitment to American ideals. 

Astute commentators have noted that the overwhelmingly white Capitol insurrectionists were mobilized both by malignant leadership and their own churning anxieties about our emerging multi-racial democracy. 

Black and white, northern and southern, raised in different religious traditions, Schwerner ’61, Goodman and Chaney show us that we can and must join together to defend and deepen our nation’s democracy. The history they helped to write challenges us anew today.

As Lincoln wrote of other fallen heroes, these three martyrs gave “the last full measure of devotion.” How easy for their sacrifice to be forgotten in the busyness of everyday life. How timely that it now be remembered in a way that becomes part of the Cornell experience.

This alum asks, and respectfully urges, his alma mater to strike a blow for memory ––and for democracy ––during the “fiery trial” we are now passing through.

Let’s build the memorial.

Bill Schechter, ’68

Bill Schechter, ’68 worked for 35-years as a high school history teacher at a public school in Massachusetts. Following his retirement, he served as a practicum supervisor at Tufts University’s School of Education and as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate in the state courts.