From the Archive: Boys of Freedom Summer

Julie Wiener

The FBI poster circulated before Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner's bodies were found. (Wikimedia Commons)

The FBI poster circulated before Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner’s bodies were found. (Wikimedia Commons)

Hamas’ kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in June riveted Israeli and Diaspora Jews and became one of the triggers for the Gaza war.

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Fifty summers ago, also in June, three young men — two of them Jewish — were abducted and murdered in Mississippi. As with the three Israelis, the fate of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney was unknown for weeks. On Aug. 4, 1964, the bodies of the civil rights field workers — murdered by the Ku Klux Klan — were found, and the trio quickly became symbols of the fight to end desegregation and help African-Americans in the South reclaim their voting rights.

Goodman and Schwerner, both Jewish and from the New York area, have become symbols not just of the civil rights movement, but are frequently cited as  examples of the American-Jewish contribution to the movement. But at the time of their disappearance, and for years after, they received little attention from JTA. The only mention that year came in the context of an article about a Martin Luther King Jr. speech in which the civil rights leader referenced Goodman and Schwerner’s “sacrifice.”

King said:

Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us in St. Augustine during our recent protest against segregation in that unhappy city? And who will ever forget the sacrifice of two Jewish lives, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in Mississippi this past June? It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom — it has been so great.

JTA did report extensively that summer on another Jewish civil rights activist, 51-year-old Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld, who was beaten by segregationists while working on a black voter registration drive in Hattiesburg, Miss. (And who, according to his New York Times obituary 32 years later, delivered the eulogy at Goodman’s funeral.)

A Reform rabbi who was the spiritual leader of Cleveland’s Fairmont Temple and former national director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation, Lelyveld declared in a JTA article while recovering from the assault that he had “only pity” for his attackers and “only a deep sorrow for the State of Mississippi.”

Resting [in Florence, Ala.] under a doctor’s care at the home of a relative, after having been released from a hospital at Hattiesburg, Miss., the rabbi declared: “It is pitiful that the leaders of the State of Mississippi fail to realize that they are shaping their own doom along with that of the closed society they have created.”

JTA noted that the rabbi “suffered a deep gash over his right eye, contusions in the chest and abdomen, and a cut over the left eye. He had come to Hattiesburg early in the previous week to work with the National Council of Churches as a counselor to young civil rights workers and as an aide in the drive in Mississippi to help Negroes register for voting.”

The next day, JTA reported that the New York Board of Rabbis, “representing more than 850 Orthodox, Reform and Conservative rabbis,” had sent a telegram to Mississippi Gov. Paul B. Johnson Jr. “expressing shock at the wanton attack” and had wired Lelyveld, expressing pride that he had “offered himself on the altar of freedom and dignity of man, in the spirit of historic Judaism.”

A  week later, Estes Keyes, a 32-year-old white farmer, admitted that he and his uncle had beaten Lelyveld with an iron bar. Police said they charged Keyes with assault and battery and intent to maim, but released him on $2,500 bail, “pending action by the Forrest County grand jury.” While JTA did not follow up, Lelyveld’s Times obituary noted that Keyes and his uncle ultimately got off with $500 fines and suspended 90-day sentences.

For the next two decades, Goodman and Schwerner were mentioned in several articles about the decline in the once-strong black-Jewish relationship, and on the 20th anniversary of their murder, JTA described a memorial for them and Chaney where prominent black and Jewish leaders “called for easing up the strains” between blacks and Jews.

Fifteen years later, a story about a black-Jewish trip honoring Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney’s memory interviewed several participants, including a rabbinical student named Sharon Brous. She would go on to become, as spiritual leader of Los Angeles’ Ikar, one of the best-known rabbis in the United States.

“There’s a certain amount of complacency about racism and social issues,” she told JTA in the 1999 article. “I hope this trip makes people realize there’s still a problem.”