Mr. Cope’s Cave: Mississippi Yearning


Goodman. Chaney. Schwerner.

Andrew. James. Michael.

Andrew would be 70 this year. James, 71, and Michael, 74. Odds are they would have grandchildren, a career behind them and many stories to tell. Andrew was studying anthropology, so who can say where he might have gone, what cultures he might have witnessed? Michael meant to be a sociologist and James a tradesman like his father.

Lots of possibilities for those young men, five decades ago. A lot of future in their futures. Think of your own lives, my mature friends, and then imagine it without the past 50 years.

Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner—those names, said together as one thought, almost one entity, ring in the memories of people my age and sensitivities with a poignancy that only seems to grow heavier as the years pass. Would I personally have ever become interested in civil rights, in politics, in getting involved in my nation’s affairs, were it not for Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner?… I don’t know. There were ample atrocities preceding the one that ended their lives to awaken a dormant conscience—the assassination of Medgar Evers, the annihilation of four little girls when an Alabama church was bombed, to name but two—but for whatever reason, it was those murders that awoke this conscience. Maybe… just maybe… it was because, as those boys were both black and white, their murders brought me to realize that the duty to seek justice wasn’t for only those denied it.

Fifty years ago last week, I was 16, between my junior and senior years in high school. “Freedom Summer” they called it, those three young men and the thousand of others who followed them to Mississippi. They were all volunteers, committed to resisting, and ultimately overcoming, the institutionalized racism of that most awful state of the awful Southern states, by the simple act of getting black citizens registered to vote.

They were not naive. They knew it could be bad. They knew about the history of violence and lynching, the fire bombings and beatings, the atmosphere of viciousness that was inevitable in a state essentially run by Klan goons. And before the largest share of them went, they knew Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner had already disappeared and were presumed killed.

But they went anyway. Black kids traveling with white kids, male kids and female kids, working together, staying together—just being together, which in itself was a capital offensive to the regime that had, since the end of the Civil War, restricted interracial contact to no more than white boots on black necks.

Tuesday, I was reminded of that time by an American Experience episode on PBS. Throughout the documentary ("Freedom Summer"), I was stunned at how brave those kids were, walking by their own volition into the maw of this savagery, unarmed, unsupported by anyone with any real power, with only their hope and courage for guidance and comfort.

With 50 years to put things in perspective, I now understand the truth that those thousand-plus kids accomplished more for our people, our nation as a whole, than all the soldiers and expenditure that America ended up pouring down the black hole of Vietnam, and they deserve every bit as much recognition for their heroism.

And I have to re-ask myself the same question I was asking myself back then: Had I been a little older than I was, a little less involved with myself than I was, would I have had the guts to join their number? Would I have had the courage and commitment to take part in what I sensed then was a most crucial struggle, and now accept without doubt that it was? Would I have understood, as those kids must have, that so much—perhaps even the survival of our democracy—depended on the success of their mission?

The answer saddens me even more than the fading whisper… Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner.