Steve Nelson: Shot by the sheriff: The deaths of civil rights workers, and the civil rights battles in US today

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WASHINGTON, Ma.— A lifelong family friend of mine was shot and killed by law enforcement. Unlike the victims of police brutality now being protested across the nation, he was white. But one of his companions was a young black man, another was a white college student. They too were murdered by a deputy sheriff and his Ku Klux Klan henchmen on June 21, 1964.

The black man was James Chaney, the student was Andrew Goodman, and my friend was Michael Schwerner, whom we called Mickey, remembered as the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi. They were there for Freedom Summer, a voter registration campaign in which a thousand college students joined thousands of black Mississippians to achieve the right to vote.

Today we often have visual evidence of police violence from bystanders' smartphones. But the three young men were murdered after dark in a Mississippi swamp. No one knew what happened to them, they just failed to return home that night.

The local white power structure dismissed their disappearance, claiming they were in hiding as part of a publicity stunt to bring in the feds. That story line was parroted in Washington by the state's two U.S. aenators, one of whom, the ardent segregationist James Eastland, was chairman of the Judiciary Committee.


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I joined protesters camped on the steps of the U.S. court house in lower Manhattan, demanding that the federal government intervene. We knew of course that it was no publicity stunt, but it had become the leading national news story. On June 24 the discovery of the burned-out shell of their station wagon stoked our worst fears, since they were still missing. Their disappearance did bring in the feds, and on August 4 the FBI found the bodies of Mickey, James and Andrew buried in an earthen dam.

Observers have noted recently, with some surprise and approval, how many white people have joined the protests against the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans. When we think back to the civil rights era, we recall Martin Luther King's March on Washington in August 1963, with hundreds of thousands of whites participating. But that was not always the case.

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In the spring of 1959 Dr. King and others held a "Youth March for Integrated Schools" in Washington, D.C. It was the second such event they had organized. The first took place the previous fall with 10,000 primarily black high school and college students participating, but King was unable to attend while recovering from a near-fatal knife wound he suffered in an assassination attempt. This time he was there to lead the march, along with other prominent civil rights leaders, as well as Jackie Robinson and Harry Belafonte, and 25,000 marchers.

To involve white youth in the march, the organizers arranged for buses to bring in students from prestigious colleges. As a freshman at Cornell, I was among a group of 20 or so white students who took a long bus ride from Ithaca, New York to Washington. In the march the college delegations carried signs identifying their schools, which drew applause from the mostly black spectators along the route. In his speech, Dr. King called the gathering "this great historic assembly, this unprecedented gathering of young people," whites and blacks "intermingled like the waters of a river the face of the future."

I had the opportunity to see him speak again in the fall of 1962, when he addressed a few hundred students and faculty at Harvard Law School. He was eloquent, he was erudite, he was engaging, he was ennobling. He emphasized the importance of eliminating legal barriers to registering and voting. That's why Mickey Schwerner went to Mississippi, and with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, died fighting for the right to vote.

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Today we face two great political and civil rights challenges: reforming police departments so as to eliminate racism and brutality, and removing the Trump administration in order to protect and preserve our constitutional democracy. Voting of course is key to the latter. Trump's Republican cronies will do everything they can to suppress the votes of people of color, because they know that's the only way their tarnished candidate can win re-election.

Voting will also be key in future municipal elections, because it will require committed mayoral administrations, with the support of their citizenry, to overcome the power of police unions to prevent meaningful reforms, along with support from the Biden administration and Congress to pass new federal laws and programs.

Some young people disparage voting, saying it won't bring about the changes we need. They're right to the extent that voting alone will not. But without voting, and putting the right people in office, there will be no change. Many people have died, not just three young civil rights workers, to protect the vote. Use it.

The column is adapted in part from Steve Nelson's memoir, "Gettin' Home: An Odyssey Through The `60s."     


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