NEW YORK – Stephen Schwerner doesn’t remember how he learned that his younger brother Michael, nicknamed Mickey, was missing in Mississippi along with colleagues Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. What he remembers is that as soon as the family heard the news, they were certain of the young men's fate.
“We were sure they were killed,” he said. “There was little doubt about that. There was no reason for them to be missing in Mississippi.”
It was the summer of 1964, an era marked by killings, beatings, disappearances and church bombings amid the struggle for civil rights and the fight against segregation. Just a year before, a bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four young Black girls.
The disappearance of the three men, who had been part of a drive to register Black voters in Mississippi during what was called Freedom Summer, and the discovery of their bodies weeks later was an inflection point that shocked the national conscience.
“The most important thing to say about the whole incident is if Mickey and Andy Goodman were Black, there never would have been national news,” Schwerner said. “But because they were both white, that’s what made it news. That’s a terribly sad commentary on America, but that’s the truth.”
Stephen Schwerner, two and a half years older than his brother, said their parents instilled in them a deep belief in human rights and social justice. His mother wanted to be a doctor but found that being poor, Jewish and a woman was too much to overcome. She became a biology teacher instead. His father was a lawyer and civil liberties activist, often representing the downtrodden.
When they were young, their father took them to see the New York Yankees — and the stars playing in the Negro Leagues. They often accompanied their parents to see folk singers such as Pete Seeger and the Black civil rights activist Josh White.
“We learned at an early age people were equal and that segregation was wrong.” Schwerner said.
Stephen Schwerner went to Antioch College in Ohio, where he joined the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union and helped stage sit-ins. He would later join the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, along with his wife, brother and sister-in-law.
While he remained in the North, his brother was drawn to the South and specifically to Mississippi. There, he met James “Jim” Chaney, who was a Black volunteer and helped set up a headquarters. Goodman would come later as one of the volunteers for Freedom Summer.
The brothers had similar beliefs, that the nation should be integrated and that people should be able to vote and have more control over their lives.
“Except he was braver than I was,” Schwerner said. “I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to go to Mississippi.”
His brother organized and his sister-in-law, Rita, ran a freedom school, Schwerner said. The head of the KKK gave the Meridian, Mississippi, chapter permission to kill Mickey as a race traitor. Schwerner doesn’t remember the last conversation he had with his brother, but he believes he knew he was in mortal danger.
Michael Schwerner and the other two men disappeared after looking into an arson at a Black church. A massive FBI search located their vehicle days afterward and their bodies later that summer, with the help of an informant.
During the search, authorities found several other bodies, primarily Black activists.
At the memorial for his brother, civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael told Stephen Schwerner it was the 17th funeral he had attended of people involved in the struggle.
“It was easy to get murdered in Mississippi,” Schwerner said.
The following year, he was in Brooklyn when the Voting Rights Act passed and was signed into law.
“People had worked toward it for years, and dozens had died,” he said. “It was incredibly important.”
Now 86, and moving with the help of a walker, he recalls as a low point the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision a decade ago, which stopped requiring states with a history of voter suppression from being checked by the Justice Department before imposing potentially discriminatory voting laws.
The court’s ruling, striking down as unconstitutional the way states were included on the list of those needing to get advance approval for voting-related changes, was based on a conclusion that labeling states as discriminators based on information half a century old was not supported: “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion for the court.
In a 5-4 ruling Thursday, the court upheld another of the law's provisions intended to protect the voting rights of minorities.
“In many ways, the story — the struggle for human rights in the United States — is two steps forward and then one back, and maybe three steps backward," Schwerner said.
Still, he points to progress since the often violent struggle for civil rights six decades ago — including the end of legal segregation, Barack Obama’s presidency and the election of people of color to political offices, including state legislatures in the South.
He is proud that he still receives letters from students who took the civil rights class he taught at Antioch College, and to see the questions they raise about equality.
“This is how it’s supposed to be — that reading of the Declaration of Independence knowing full well it didn’t apply to most people because when it said all men are created equal, it really meant landowning white men,” Schwerner said. “But it did say all men and it meant all humans. So, we have got to keep striving to that.”
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