June 28, 2005

Conviction in 1964 Mississippi civil rights killings brings sense of closure to Cornell

Michael Schwerner
Michael Schwerner's only Cornell University photo on record is this Alpha Epsilon Pi image from the 1959 yearbook taken during his sophomore year.

"I was frightened, and I was devastated," said Burt Neuborne '61, recalling the murder of one of his Cornell University classmates, Michael Schwerner '61, and two other civil rights workers at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. 

On June 21, Edgar Ray Killen, a Baptist preacher and sawmill operator, was sentenced to 60 years in jail on manslaughter charges for ordering the deaths of Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white, and James Chaney, an African-American. At a previous trial, in 1967, an all-white jury had deadlocked 11-1 in favor of convicting Killen and 17 other men. 

The three, who were working with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on a voter registration drive based in Meridian, Miss., were murdered after being lured to a burnt church in nearby Philadelphia, Miss., on the evening of June 21, 1964. While the killings were national front-page news at the time and were later made into a movie, "Mississippi Burning," on the local level, the deaths reverberated throughout campus, and since then have continued to echo in some people's minds. 

The local connections reach beyond alumnus Schwerner. Andrew Goodman's parents, Carolyn ('30) and Robert ('35, M.S. '39), who died in 1969, are both Cornell alumni. Along with many other young people at the time for whom the three young men became martyrs, many Cornellians were involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi for the same reasons as were Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. 

In 1991, the Class of '61 placed a stained glass window honoring the three young men in Cornell's Sage Chapel. For those who remember the summer of 1964, Killen's conviction perhaps provided some closure. 

Sage Chapel window
University Photography
This window at Sage Chapel, a gift of the Class of 1961, was installed in 1991 to honor the three civil rights workers, from the top, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

"I felt a sense of relief at the conviction," said Neuborne, a professor of law at New York University, and one of the nation's leading civil-liberties lawyers. "It doesn't restore anything, but somehow there was some sense that the wheel had turned, and the world had changed, and there was some solace in that." 

Cornell and civil rights in the early 1960s

Prior to the killings of the three men on June 21, 1964, the campus climate was slowly starting to heat as the volatile 1960s picked up steam. 

"In the early 1960s, civil rights and the Vietnam war were not the big issues they became later in the 1960s," said Gould Colman '51, Ph.D. '62, university archivist emeritus. "There was a lot of agitation about national nuclear policy in the early 60s, but there was a group on campus committed to civil rights."

Those early civil-rights advocates on campus included Schwerner. 

"He was very gentle and very, very politically active," said Neuborne of his classmate. "I remember hearing him speak at rallies and in conversations. He was very active in civil rights. My own world was intensely involved in thinking about civil rights," Neuborne said about his contacts at Cornell. "There was a great openness to talking about problems of civil rights issues." 

Cornell students began to travel to Mississippi in 1962 to organize a voter registration drive for black Americans. More students followed in 1963. 

Neuborne, having graduated from Cornell, was in Harvard Law School when he went to Mississippi to help canvas for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a more integrated alternative to the Democratic Party in Mississippi. 

In 1964 Sarah Elbert '65, Ph.D. '73, a civil-rights activist at the time and now a history professor at the State University of New York--Binghamton, recalled meeting Goodman in Mississippi just prior to his death. "Andy Goodman was just a real sweetheart," she said. "He was a big, nice looking guy, one of the best-natured people, very idealistic; he obviously came from a very liberal family." 

Elbert recalled that some of the people canvassing had a kind of naiveté about their activism. "There was a kind of summer-camp feeling for some people," she said. "Many were seeing this stuff for the first time. We were scared, but it wasn't a very wise scared. Most of the white people that came down there were not very street smart." 

Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney disappeared in June 1964, but their the bodies were not discovered until Aug. 5 that summer; they had been shot and buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss. 

Elbert recalled the shock of hearing of the deaths. "There was a combination of feeling scared and angry. I think a lot of people were so sheltered. The anger was about something that we thought was in the past," she said. "The KKK were being protected. They were active, they were being intimidating, and they were denying people the right to vote." 

In the fall of 1964, when Elbert returned to Cornell after a hiatus from school, she noted how the deaths brought the black students and the students in the new left movement together. 

"There were very few black people at the time at Cornell, but they started opening up," she recalled. At the time, she recalled, African Americans could not go into some stores in Ithaca and some clothing stores would not allow them to try on clothes. "They said they never knew whether they were being discriminated against or if it was just a rude clerk," she said. 

Even so, for many people on campus at the time, discussion was simply about the news. "It wasn't penetrating more deeply," Elbert said.

In memoriam: Sage Chapel window

Since those days, the deaths and events have resonated in the minds and hearts of some alumni from the 1960s. The Class of 1961, for example, established the Michael Schwerner Memorial Scholarship Fund in 1988. Each year since then, approximately $2,500 has been awarded to a qualifying and deserving undergraduate interested in civil rights.

Lee Robinson, the Class of 1961 president in the early '90s, proposed that his class raise money to install a window in Sage Chapel to honor the three civil-rights workers. 

The idea was immediately embraced, and Robinson and others hired Greenwich Village artist Albinus Elskus to design and create the window. The stained-glass window, with a portrait of each of the three men beneath a top panel with brilliant flames and a burning church, has a plaque beneath it honoring the three "who were slain during the 1964 voter registration drive in Mississippi and all the others who died for the advancement of civil rights and racial equality in our country." 

On June 7, 1991, during the Class of 1961's 30th reunion, a dedication ceremony included more than 100 alumni, Schwerner's widow, Rita, relatives of Chaney and Carolyn Goodman. 

"It was a moving ceremony," said Neuborne, who spoke at the event. By 1991 he had already served as National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

"The general tenor was sadness," he said of the event. "There was not an ounce of joy in the ceremony, which was right." 

Some small sense of closure

Last week's news of Killen's sentencing stirred up some memories. Neuborne said he was on the phone with classmates following the convictions.

"It wasn't revenge that I felt," he said. "It was just that something had changed, and we got some small sense of comfort out of that." 

For Elbert, the convictions pointed out that we are headed in the right direction but more work needs to be done. 

"I'm delighted," she said of the conviction. "I know a lot of people down there [in the South] are saying it's old history, that Killen's an old man now, and let him be. My feeling is that these kinds of things don't go away. We haven't touched the system down there, it's about power, and it's about profit. It's about getting a better job or a better house because you are white."