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Supreme Court undermines ultimate sacrifice of civil rights workers

Robin Washington | 6/26/2014, 6 a.m.

Fifty years ago last weekend, three civil rights workers went missing in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Their bodies would be discovered in an earthen dam 44 days later as the ultimate payment for their efforts to secure voting rights for all Americans.

Half a century later, their work is again under attack, their family members say.

“Looking back on everything that went into what became the Civil Rights Movement — all the blood, sweat and tears,” Julia Chaney-Moss said last week from her home in Willingboro, N.J., “it’s hard very hard to calculate the gains when the losses have been so great recently.”

The greatest loss was of her brother, James Chaney, along with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Killed by Klan members doubling as local sheriffs and deputies, their murders sparked national outrage, fueling passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act a year later.

Yet much of that progress was turned back last year when the Supreme Court gutted crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act, followed by a ruling against affirmative action in higher education in April.

“There are lots of people and groups working real hard to disenfranchise large numbers of people,” Steve Schwerner, Michael’s brother, said from New York. “It’s clearly still a racist country.”

In a bitter irony, racial attitudes holding white lives as more valuable than black was what helped capture the nation’s attention. Chaney was a black Mississippian. Schwerner and Goodman were white and Jewish from New York.

“It’s no secret that had my brother not been with Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, we would not have known anything of what had happened to him. It’s a painful reality, but it is common knowledge,” Moss-Chaney said.

Schwerner agreed.

“We wouldn’t be talking right now if it was only Jim Chaney or if it was three Mississippi black people. The were many people that had been killed in Mississippi beforehand, and with the exception of Medger Evers never made the New York Times, never made NBC News. Nobody ever mentioned their names.”

Schwerner had arrived in Mississippi earlier that spring. Teaming up with Chaney to work on voter registration and citizenship projects, he immediately raised the ire of the Ku Klux Klan.

“He was targeted from the moment he arrived,” Moss-Chaney said. “You know the nature of hate: ‘Let me first make sure I degrade you to the degree in my mind that you are less than human.’ There’s nothing less than human for a white man to be than a ‘n— lover.’ Once that’s established, then anything goes.”

Goodman joined them on June 20, 1964. They were riding in a blue Ford station wagon the next day when a deputy sheriff stopped them.

“It is sad, heartbreakingly sad, that Andy’s first day in Mississippi was the last day of his life,” Moss-Chaney said, her voice going quiet.

The 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning” picks up the story from there — at least in the Hollywood version.

“The movie I love to hate. I sat through it a couple of times,” Schwerner said. “It makes out the FBI as the hero. And of course the Civil Rights Movement felt that the FBI was the enemy and was working with local law enforcement (who were Klan members) much more than the movement.”

Moss-Chaney too decried the portrayal of a “hero FBI.”

“Tell me about it. If all of that had been invested, it wouldn’t have taken 44 days” to find the bodies.

Still, she does say the film is useful as a starting point for raising young people’s awareness of the story when immediately followed by discussion and an accurate telling. The families, close ever since the murders, have all been involved in preserving the history as well as continuing the martyred trio’s work.

As for where the country is now, Schwerner said: “We’ve certainly made some progress. On a scale of 1 to 10, if you started at 1 when Brown vs. Board of Education came down in 1954, we might be at 4 now.”

For that, three gave their lives.

Robin Washington of Duluth, Minn., is a former managing editor of the Banner. He is a research fellow for the San Francisco-based think tank, Be’chol Lashon. He was executive producer of the documentary “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!” and writes frequently on the history of the Civil Rights Movement.