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Michael Schwerner was a white civil rights activist from the United States who worked with the Congress of Racial Equality in Mississippi. Schwerner was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan along with activists Andrew Goodman and James Chaney for their advocacy work to promote African-American voting rights and registration.

Youth and Education

Michael Schwerner was born on November 6, 1939, in New York City, New York.[1] His parents bore one son prior to Michael. His father ran a plant that manufactured wigs and his mother taught biology in one of the local high schools. He grew up a happy child with a gentle and curious nature. He played sports, poker, loved rock music, W.C. Fields, and his cocker spaniel, which he named Gandhi.

Michael Schwerner felt drawn to the civil rights movement in university and spent his brief life working to empower African-Americans in Mississippi.

The Schwerner family lived in New York City until 1947 and then relocated to Westchester County. Schwerner graduated from a New York public high school and applied to Michigan State. He studied at Michigan for only one year before transferring to New York’s Cornell University to study rural sociology. He began his fight in the civil rights movement by campaigning for an African-American student to be accepted into his fraternity and succeeded.

Schwerner earned his Bachelors from Cornell and immediately enrolled at Columbia University’s Master’s program in sociology. He dropped out soon after enrollment to work as a housing project social worker in the Lower East Side of New York City. He easily built a rapport with the troubled teenagers and demonstrated a natural talent for social work.[2]

Marriage and the Congress on Racial Equality

Michael Schwerner met Rita Levant, a student of education at Queen’s College while working in the Lower East Side.[3] They married in June 1962. The couple joined the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) the next year after watching the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama riots on television.[4][5] Schwerner requested a position somewhere in the deep south where racism lived openly.[6]

On January 16, 1964, CORE assigned the Schwerners to the Council of Federated Organizations. Then on January 21, the couple moved to Meridian, Mississippi to work as CORE field staffers. According to Rita Schwerner’s testimony, CORE assigned them to find a community center in which to provide services to African-Americans local councils and the state of Mississippi refused to provide.

The couple worked tirelessly in the eastern half of the 4th Congressional District for the next six months. Michael Schwerner left the state only to attend necessary conferences, including one in February to New Orleans, one in March to New York, and their final trip together to Oxford, Ohio in June.[7]

Civil Rights Activism in Meridian, Mississippi

Michael Schwerner met James E. Chaney shortly after arriving in Meridian and he soon joined their CORE staff. The Schwerners got directly to work and lived with several different African-American families throughout the area. They moved so often because once the white locals angry with their efforts to improve the lives of black residents figured out their location the hosting family began receiving threats.

Michael and Rita Schwerner never faltered in their fight for civil rights in Mississippi even with hundreds of death threats and intimidating tactics from the police.

Finding a house proved to be difficult for the couple. They finally secured a sublease from Albert Jones, who rented from a white woman named Mrs. Cunningham. Mrs. Cunningham raised the rent dramatically on the couple prior to evicting them in the beginning of June. The local police did not support the Schwerner’s efforts to help the black community of Meridian either.

The police picked up Michael Schwerner more than once for questioning at police headquarters. They arrested him in April 1964 for blocking a crosswalk and put him in a holding cell for two days. While in the cell, one of the officers removed Schwerner’s cellmate to discuss something before placing him back in with Schwerner. The fellow prisoner informed Schwerner that the policeman requested he get the rest of the inmates to beat Schwerner with no consequences.

In May, the Schwerners received so many threatening phone calls from locals opposing their efforts to establish an African-American community and teaching center, they had to keep their telephone unplugged all night to sleep. During this same time, Mickey Schwerner visited several places in Neshoba County over 30 different trips.[8]

Mount Zion Church and the KKK

Michael Schwerner met with leaders in Neshoba County’s black community at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Longdale to organize voter’s registration and classes in the church. The Mississippi Ku Klux Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Sam Bowers, targeted Mickey Schwerner for this work and many KKK members referred to Schwerner as the “Jew-Boy” or “Goatee.”

On June 16, 1964, the church leaders met without Schwerner, but Bowers believed Schwerner would be in attendance. He sent a large group of Klan members to attack the meeting and did not find Mickey Schwerner. They KKK beat the African-American leaders they found and set fire to the church.

Schwerner left the conference in Ohio early with James Chaney and they returned to Meridian, where they were joined by student and young civil rights activist, Andrew Goodman. On June 21, 1964, they went to investigate the church fire, leaving explicit instructions to the CORE office that they should return by four in the afternoon, and if not, to contact Neshoba County police.

Murder and Trial

Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman did not know that both Sheriff Lawrence Rainy and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. When the three learned that a group of angry white men sought to impede their arson investigation, they decided to leave Neshoba County by a back route to avoid an ambush.

Deputy Price happened to be driving on Highway 16 and the civil rights activists left via the same road and he arrested them. Price released the three men from jail after denying them a phone call and having the Neshoba police lie about the men's whereabouts to the CORE office. They were followed by Price and two cars filled with angry KKK members, who chased them until they surrendered.

Under the direction of Price and KKK leader, Edgar Ray Killen, Wayne Roberts shot Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. They buried the bodies in a dam on the Old Jolly Farm. [9] On October 21, 1967, after a long trial and help from U.S. President John F. Kennedy, seven of the men charged with violating the civil rights of the three men were sentenced, including the KKK member who became a police witness and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price.[10]

References

Bibliography


Linder, D. O. (2014). Biography of Michael Schwerner. University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law.[1]


Linder, D. O. (2016, June). The Mississippi Burning Trial (U. S. Vs. Price et al.). University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law.[2]


Simkin, J. (1997). Michael Schwerner. Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd.[3]

Testimony of Rita L. Schwerner (1964). In Mississippi Black Paper: Fifty-Seven Negro and White Citizens' Testimony of Police Brutality, the Breakdown of Law and Order and the Corruption of Justice in Mississippi (New York Random House, 1965), pp. 59-60,61, 62-63.[4]

Footnotes

  1. Simkin, 1997
  2. Linder, 2014
  3. Linder, 2014
  4. Simkin, 1997
  5. Linder, 2014
  6. Linder, 2014
  7. Testimony of Rita L. Schwerner, 1964
  8. Testimony of Rita L. Schwerner, 1964
  9. Linder, 2016
  10. Simkin, 1997

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