June 21, 2004
June 21, 2004, marks the 40th anniversary of the disappearance of three young civil-rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss. It was Father's Day that year, and six weeks later three fathers would mourn the murder of their sons, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
These three young men were soldiers in the nonviolent war against American racism that raged throughout this nation in the 1960s. They enlisted. They were not drafted. And even though their deaths were only three among many in the course of the war, they came to symbolize both what the civil-rights movement was fighting against and the idealism of its thousands of young and older combatants.
Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, two New York Jews and one African-American from Mississippi, respectively, were part of a larger struggle throughout the South, which was most intense in Mississippi.
Various organizations, including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had recruited college students from around the country to converge on the state in the summer of 1964 for a project called Freedom Summer.
Hundreds of young people -- black, Native American, Latino, Asian and white -- fanned out across the state to work on voter-registration drives and to set up Freedom Schools. Many were arrested, harassed, beaten, and two from out of state -- Schwerner and Goodman -- lost their lives.
Even though Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney turned up missing at the outset of Freedom Summer, the project continued. Volunteers were fueled by the knowledge that their work was in some way continuing what their fallen comrades had begun.
Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney accomplished more than many of us do who live to be a ripe old age. In their courageous, although unintended sacrifice, they galvanized the movement for civil rights.
Freedom Summer participants registered tens of thousands of disenfranchised Mississippians. They helped local black leaders and their allies to form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the national Democratic Party in a historic convention in Atlantic City, N.J., in August of 1964.
At that convention, Democratic delegates were forced to confront the reality that the party had made a deal with the devil by allowing racist segregationists to dominate its state organizations and primaries.
Change did not come immediately in 1964, but the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's challenge was a turning point. Party delegates marched into Atlantic City holding the photos of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney high in the air.
The three civil-rights workers have been immortalized in numerous documentaries, history books, posters and even one Hollywood movie. Still, those who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Subsequent generations of young people have followed the lead of the Freedom Summer organizers. There was a freedom summer in Boston in 1975 to support school busing for desegregation. In the 1990s, there was a freedom summer for those eager to aid workers in union campaigns. And this summer, peace activists are being called to the Occupied Territories in Palestine to organize against repression and injustice.
The idea of unleashing the idealism and energy of youth was what Freedom Summer 1964 was all about. It was a hopeful moment amidst seriousness and sadness. There was no sense that the three young freedom fighters had died in vain then.
Today, 40 years later as we look back, there remains much meaning and inspiration in their collective sacrifice.
Barbara Ransby is an associate professor of African American Studies and History at University of Illinois at Chicago, and a longtime community activist. She is the author of the award-winning biography, "Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision" (UNC Press, 2003), and works closely with The Public Square, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that facilitates public discourse on social issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.