A Brutal Loss, an Enduring Conviction

Fifty years ago, Rita Schwerner’s husband was killed by the Klan in Mississippi. She says challenges remain in the fight for racial justice.

On June 21, 1964, at the launch of Freedom Summer, three civil-rights workers went missing in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Forty-four days later, federal agents searching an earthen dam confirmed what many had already suspected: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered, and in time the Klan would be found responsible. While her husband and his colleagues became martyrs, Rita Schwerner, then 22, became a widow.

The Schwerners, both native New Yorkers, had moved to Meridian, Miss., that January to establish a community center for black residents and to begin efforts to register black voters. The killing of civil-rights workers was not uncommon. But the murders of Schwerner and Goodman drew the attention of the national media—and as a result, the federal government—because, unlike the others who had been killed, they were white. Rita, diminutive and soft-spoken, was reluctantly thrust into the spotlight, which she used to call attention to the brutality against civil-rights workers and other black Mississippians.

"My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain," she said at the time. "If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded."

After her husband's death, Rita Schwerner, now Rita Bender, continued to work on voting issues with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party before deciding to earn a law degree. She remarried and spent stints with the American Civil Liberties Union and as a public defender before starting a family law firm in Seattle with her husband.

For the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, we contacted Bender. She was reluctant to speak with us, repeating a concern that she has voiced continuously through the years—that too much focus has been paid to the white Northerners who came down that summer, and that the embrace of that narrative has slighted all the black Mississippians who had fought for civil rights before, during, and after Freedom Summer. But after learning that hers would be one of a diverse group of voices in ProPublica's occasional series, "Dispatches From Freedom Summer," Bender agreed to talk about the impact of that summer and how far our nation has come since.

How did you meet your husband, Michael?
Through a friend. I had to think about it. Through a high-school friend who ended up working a job where he was working. We were both in college, but we did not meet in college. Why are you asking these types of questions? There’s a lot of focus on me. I think it does distract and distort from the reality of what the movement was about and who were the people. The people, as I know you know, were the people who lived in those terrible circumstances. The history of a white kid is quite irrelevant.


Image from the Federal Bureau of Investigations

Your husband, along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, became the face of Freedom Summer, and as a journalist I am interested in learning something about them that I didn’t know. Also, I am interested in exploring why Jewish people were so heavily involved in Freedom Summer and the civil-rights movement.
This notion that Jews had or have some greater sense of enlightenment is another distortion. Neither Mickey nor I grew up in families in which there was a strong Jewish identity, though we both had grandparents who were immigrants to the United States. I don’t think either of us identified ourselves as directed or infused with anything that was particularly Jewish. I am not a religious person. In fact, I am an atheist and have been most of my adult life. That was certainly true of Mickey. I have no doubt that there were and are people who are involved in social movements, and their moral compass is in some ways governed by their religious beliefs. Many people in the civil-rights movement have a very strong belief in a Christian God. I don’t think there is anything false or inappropriate in those beliefs. The notion that so many whites [in Freedom Summer] were Jews because Jews have such a strong moral compass is ludicrous.

So how did a young, white New Yorker come to be a part of Freedom Summer?
I am not sure I can give you an answer. I am not sure I had an answer 50 years ago. There are things in our lives that you and I know are important to us. I was teaching in a school in South Jamaica, Queens, just before I went to Mississippi. So I taught there for a semester. The kids were either recent arrivals from Puerto Rico or African Americans who were living in real poverty. But this was an eighth-grade class, and at least half of the kids in the class could not read. Was that part of the reason? Maybe. But they were in New York and couldn’t read. I suspect if I went back to that neighborhood now, I might find the same thing.

So that led you to join CORE [Congress of Racial Equality, one of the civil-rights groups that was a major organizer of Freedom Summer]?
We were living in New York. Mickey was a social worker. He somehow got connected with the downtown chapter of CORE, and I met them through him. We got involved in some efforts in New York. One of the big efforts in New York was the integration of the building trades. These were very lucrative jobs, and those were jobs that were completely closed to people of color. The unions wouldn’t do anything about it, and employers had no interest in doing anything about it. And so that is how we became more connected with some of the people with CORE and why we decided we were willing to go to Mississippi.

You and your husband headed to Mississippi in January 1964, six months before Freedom Summer. What were you tasked with doing?
In Mississippi, unlike the rest of the Southern United States, there wasn’t much of a movement present. We were assigned to go to Meridian, in what was the 4th Congressional District. There was this idea of developing a community center with the idea that it would be a place where kids could come and hang out, and where we would gather a library and get as many books as possible on black history and literature, and work with adults on how to pass the voter registration test, which was virtually impossible to do.

It was not very enthusiastically adopted by a lot of the black workers around the state because of the concern that it would be taken over by white people. But it was the local people who said this is a good idea. They said, “Let’s get more folks down here.” So it came to pass.

You, a native New Yorker, were coming to the deepest South. What were your first impressions?
I was struck very quickly with the sense of community in the black communities, with the sense of extended family, and I mean in a broader sense than blood relationships. The caring for each other and the caring for us. When I think back about that time, that’s one of the things that I still realize—just a great sense of a fondness about the way in which people took care of each other.

How did you come to meet James Chaney?
He had been involved as a teenage kid in some of the very earliest efforts to protest in Meridian. The story we learned is that he had actually been expelled from a high school once because he wore a CORE button on his shirt. As soon as we opened up the community center, he showed up and said, “OK, what are you guys doing and what can I do to help?” He knew his way around—not only the black community in Meridian, he knew his way around the county. He knew where the various churches were and the people in those communities.

"We have yet to come to terms with the fact that this is a country that was built on racism and continues to thrive on racism."

Freedom Summer was about voter efforts, but less talked about are the Freedom Schools. Bob Moses [a Freedom Summer organizer] told me that education and voting were intertwined because black Mississippians were getting a sharecropper’s education, and you all aimed to change that. Do you agree?
Yes. I think that continues to be true, and not just in the South. Some number of people of color in this point in the history of this country have managed to get a good education and been able to do all types of great stuff. But we’ve kind of created a dilemma for ourselves. The denial of education around the country has created a cheap labor force that until recently was very valuable. Now we’ve moved to mechanization and we seem to have a surplus of under-educated people, but we don’t seem willing to do anything about it. I go back to the eighth-grade kids who couldn’t read. What were they being educated to be? The janitors of New York City.

Voting and education continue to be intertwined these days. We see the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act. If you have people who can vote, one of the things they'll be interested in is schools and education. If you have people who are educated, they will be interested in voting. The right to vote wasn't just to say, "Yes, I've voted." It was to be able to assert yourself as a participant in the political process.

I read that when you and your husband first arrived in Mississippi, white locals pretty much left you alone. Why do you think that was?
I had a sense, and I can’t point to anything in particular, but I’ve always thought that the word was out in Meridian among white folks there who might have hassled us not to create a whole lot of difficulty in the city because they didn’t want a lot of attention brought. Mickey was picked up a few times by the police, but they didn’t do any of the really bad stuff that was happening to workers around the state.

But the people who were providing housing for us were being threatened, threatened with loss of whatever job they had, physical harm to them or their children, threatened with the burning of their house. When we first got there, we were living two to three weeks in the house of a black family, and they had to ask us to leave because they were getting threats. Then we were staying with another black family, and they had to ask us to leave because they were getting threats. A black businessman ended up renting a house under his name from a white woman, and we stayed there.

Over the course of that spring, the Klan got really active; there was a wave of cross burnings. I remember there was a local farmer who had a lot of kids, and he invited us over to eat fish. We were all at the table eating fish, and we see a commotion outside. Somebody—somebodies—had put up a cross in front of his yard and set it on fire. That family could not miss the message of the risk they were running.

And yet, so many were still willing to run that risk to house and feed white volunteers, who obviously stuck out. Why?
There was a sense that, "Hey, maybe people outside of here will know we exist." It must have been in ways that I can only slightly understand, this sense of being enclosed by all of this terror. It’s really only in the years since that I think it’s become better known, the intense spy apparatus in the state. I don’t think most people knew that was going on, though they certainly knew that somehow or another all kinds of things were known about them.

I only recently became aware of Mississippi's State Sovereignty Commission myself, and was both appalled and fascinated by it. [The Mississippi legislature created the Sovereignty Commission after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The commission operated as a spy organization that reported on civil-rights efforts, collecting volumes of records, including mug shots and license-plate numbers, on tens of thousands of black and white Mississippians and civil-rights workers. The commission also helped fund the White Citizens’ Council with state money, and assisted in the defense of the man who assassinated Medgar Evers. Some of its staff members were ex-FBI agents.]

I am somewhat obsessed with them because they are just so bizarre. Even now I will get some free time and start reading files. There was one case where white folks had contacted them because this young black man was being a little uppity—I don't know if that was the actual word used, but that was the gist of it. Then there was a very brief note in the file saying no need to worry because we’ve contacted his draft board. Do you think that kid ever knew why he got drafted?

Did you understand the danger of what you were doing?
Perhaps in an intellectual way; in a gut way, probably not. If you grow up in an environment where people aren’t out to hurt you, it’s hard to assimilate the notion that people really are out to hurt you.

The FBI came to believe that the murders of your husband, Chaney, and Goodman were not crimes of opportunity, but that the church where you had all been organizing had been set on fire as a lure to set up the murders. Do you believe this to be true?
A few weeks ago, I was there at the church and I spoke; one of the things I said was there are two possibilities and maybe both are true. One, the church was burned and members of the church beaten as punishment because they had gotten involved in the movement. Or it was burned to lure Chaney and Mickey there. Maybe it was done for both reasons. Does it ultimately matter? No. Either way, it was done for the same terroristic reasons.


Protestors in Mississippi carry signs depicting the three slain men. Photo from U.S. News & World Report

After your husband went missing, you met with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Lyndon Johnson, and you used those meetings to call out those two powerful men. In fact, after you brushed away President Johnson’s niceties by saying, "This is not a social call. I've come to find out where my husband is," you were told by his press secretary that no one speaks to the President of the United States that way. How did you manage to say those things? Was it because you believed he had been acquiescent to the violence that ultimately led to your husband’s death?
Hoover was certainly complicit up to his eyeballs with the kinds of exchange of information with the Sovereignty Commission, the kinds of public attitudes he took. You asked me how did I say those things? I guess the answer is, Why not? They were true. What was Lyndon Johnson possibly going to do to me? In a way, I was very safe. When I went there, that day there had been discussion with some of the other movement people, "What was the message?" And the message was people are being murdered, people are being brutalized, you've got to send protection, you’ve got to send federal troops. It wasn’t just send people to find these bodies, it was send protection, which didn’t actually happen.

How did the President react to your bluntness?
I think he was quite taken aback. I suppose if I was the President of the United States, I'd expect people to be polite to me. It’s not that I hadn’t been taught manners. I don’t know, I guess I had a sense that I didn’t have many minutes and I needed to say what was on my mind.

You became a widow at 22. What did you do after Freedom Summer?
I worked through that summer and then through the following year on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Then I decided to go to law school.

Your constant refrain, from the time your husband went missing to the present day, is that the nation only paid attention because two of the men killed 50 years ago were white. Even in 2005, as the national press converged on the trial that finally led to the conviction of your husband’s murderer, you admonished them for treating the trial like it was the most important moment of the civil-rights movement because of the white victims. Why is this so important to you?
We are hearing from the Supreme Court of the United States, or several of its justices anyway, that we are really in a post-racial America and we don’t need to talk about it anymore. That same Supreme Court is gutting the Voting Rights Act and doing away with efforts to provide quality schooling to children of color. We have yet as a nation to come to terms with the fact that this is a country that was built on racism and continues to an appalling degree to thrive on racism.

What, then, do you think is the legacy of Freedom Summer?
It’s a hard question to answer. Because in a way the problem is [that] if you take it in isolation, it had far less meaning. I guess that is one of the reasons I chafe so at all the focus on the murders. That distorts the message. This was part, as we both know, of a much, much larger movement. Did it start with the guys who came back from World War II and said we are not going to take it anymore? Did it start with Reconstruction? Did it start with rebellions on slave ships? You have to take the long view, because we still have so much to go.

What was the significance of Freedom Summer in and of itself? Not that much. Taken in context of the larger history and understanding what it did, it got the Justice Department involved in voting-rights issues in ways it had not been before. It was possible the Voting Rights Act would not have been passed without the activities of that summer, but it’s hard to say.

I think what's scary about it is thinking about how long does it take for all this change to happen and all the people who get ground up waiting? We are still a work in process. I use process instead of progress because I am not sure about the progress.

news@seattleweekly.com

Read more of ProPublica's "Dispatches From Freedom Summer" at propublica.org; search Freedom Summer.

 
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