Historical Background

In 1964, at the high-water mark of the Civil Rights Movement, a coalition of groups named COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) decided to invite white college students to come down to Mississippi to assist in registering African-Americans to vote, an effort that became known as Freedom Summer. The thinking behind the campaign was this: while black activists had been killed in the state with impunity, white college students–by virtue of their middle class status and connections, and the color of their skin–would bring a system of law with them, as well as a media spotlight.

Michael Schwerner, age 24 (who graduated from Cornell in 1961) and Andrew Goodman, age 20 (a Queens College student and the son of two Cornell alums) were already down in Mississippi before the first Freedom Summer activists arrived. On June 21, 1964, these two civil right workers together with Mississippi native and African American freedom fighter James Chaney, age 21, were asked by COFO to investigate the burning of a black church near Philadelphia, MS., about 40 miles north of their Meridian, MS, headquarters. 

After viewing the ruins, they were heading back to Meridian when they were pulled over by the Philadelphia deputy sheriff for an alleged traffic violation. They were taken to the courthouse lockup and held for several hours before being released–and led into an ambush. Somewhere along Highway 19, they were pulled over by the Ku Klux Klan and murdered. Forty-four days later, following an intensive FBI search, their bodies were found. Their parents requested that they be buried together in Mississippi. The state authorities, citing segregation laws, refused. 

The shocking murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The first and only murder conviction in the case came in 2005.

[At Cornell, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner belonged to the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He is credited with de-segregating his fraternity, a pioneering and far-reaching change that soon spread to all fraternities on campus. AEPi and Hillel have participated in past efforts to honor these three martyrs, most recently in 2012].

 

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