Rep. John Lewis 50th Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Lives of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner
"Fifty years ago this month thousands of college students from around the country came to Mississippi during their summer break to help register black citizens to vote. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, under the direction of its Mississippi lead, Bob Moses, had been working in the state for several years. SNCC made only limited progress, so Moses developed the Freedom Summer concept as a way to demonstrate the challenges of the voting rights struggle there.
"It was the hardest, meanest state in the South. Civil rights workers were harassed, beaten and even killed. Fannie Lou Hamer had been severely beaten one year earlier after participating in a literacy workshop. Just days later NAACP civil rights organizer Medgar Evers was killed in his driveway. Moses too had lost colleagues during his years of work in the state. He decided the only way to create a national sense of urgency was to invite people to participate in the struggle in Mississippi to they could experience the challenges for themselves.
"As chairman of SNCC, I worked with organizers from a federated council of civil rights organizations. I traveled all around the country talking to students asking them to participate in Freedom Summer, and they came from everywhere. They had witnessed and admired the struggle for human dignity waged all across the South through sit-ins and non-violent protests. They wanted to be a part of something greater than themselves. Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were two of the students I met, and both were committed to the creation of a more inclusive democracy. James Chaney was a native of Mississippi who had been involved in civil rights work there in the months leading up to Freedom Summer. He volunteered to serve as a guide to help Goodman and Schwerner navigate the intricate landscape of Mississippi.
"On June 21st, these three young men set out in a car to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. The Mt. Zion congregation had voted the evening before to allow the church to host a Freedom School, which engaged in voting rights education. The next day it was set fire by the Ku Klux Klan. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner left together in a car to find out what happened, and they never returned.
"We found out later they were stopped by the sheriff, arrested, jailed, and then released to the Klan. Then they were beaten, shot, killed and buried in a dam. They were missing for nearly two months when finally their bodies were discovered. During the course of the investigation officials dredged the local rivers and discovered nameless victims they never knew were missing. This injustice did not happen in Honduras or Libya. It did not happen in China or Iraq. These three young men did not die in the Sudan, Columbia or Syria. They did not die in Pakistan or North Korea. They died right here in this country trying to help people register and vote.
"As we look, during this election year, toward the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, it is clear that concerted efforts have been made to restrict the voting access of people of color. We must never forget the blood that was shed by thousands so that we could vote without threat or fear today. As we commemorate their courage and their sacrifice, we must also realize that our freedom is not free. The struggle for voting rights is not over. It still continues today. There are forces still working to block participation in our democracy. We have a mission and a mandate passed to us down by these three young men. We must make sure they did not die in vain. In the face of this powerful legacy, there is no room for apathy. We must use the rights these young men afforded us to do all we can to help build a more just society. But, if we choose not to use them, we can still lose them."