The Summer Of Our Discontent

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Raised in a liberal Manhattan family where talk of social justice was dinnertime fare, Goodman seemed a poster boy for youthful altruism. Telling his parents about his determination to go to Mississippi, he considered Freedom Summer “the most important thing going on in the country!” Only later did he confide to a friend, “I’m scared, but I’m going.” Optimistic and a little naive, the 20-year-old Queens College student packed a sweater in his duffel bag—for a summer in Mississippi. SNCC had slated Goodman to work in Vicksburg, but Schwerner recruited him for his Freedom School. When he learned of the church burning in Neshoba County, Schwerner took Goodman and Chaney and left Ohio early to investigate.

June 22, 1964: Throughout the predawn hours, the Meridian office kept up its frantic calling. Three men were missing, but no jailer had seen them. The Mississippi Highway Patrol refused to issue a missing-persons bulletin, and the FBI rejected all pleas to investigate. Then, at 6:55 a.m., the Neshoba County jailer changed her story—Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had been in custody. Arrested for speeding on Sunday afternoon, they had been released at 10:30 p.m., their taillights disappearing down Highway 19, on the way back to Meridian. After that, nothing.

While Mississippi smoldered, Bob Moses stood before a second group of volunteers in Ohio. “Yesterday morning,” he began, “three of our people left Meridian, Mississippi, to investigate a church burning in Neshoba County. They haven’t come back, and we haven’t had any word from them.” The auditorium rippled with alarm. In the confusion, a waiflike woman with dark, closely cropped hair strode to the stage. Rita Schwerner asked volunteers to send telegrams to their congressmen demanding an FBI investigation. When someone asked how to spell the three names, she strode to a blackboard. The scraping of chalk could be heard in the back of the auditorium. When she wrote down her husband’s name, each young face in the audience suddenly bore a look of primal fear—this could happen to me .

That evening, volunteers in Ohio gathered to watch the news. “Good evening,” began Walter Cronkite. “Three young civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi on Sunday night near the central Mississippi town of Philadelphia. . . .” While Cronkite spoke, FBI agents, finally set in motion by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, drove north from New Orleans. The following morning the FBI swept into Neshoba County.

All that Tuesday, men in white shirts and skinny ties swarmed through the little town of Philadelphia, where Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had been in custody. They set up headquarters in a motel, then went to question Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his deputy, Cecil Price. The plump deputy said he’d watched the taillights vanish. The hulking sheriff reckoned it was all a hoax. The three men were “hid somewhere trying to get a lot of publicity out of it, I figure.” Then, early that afternoon, men fishing in a nearby swamp spotted the blue station wagon. Agents hurried to the scene and hacked their way through blackberry thickets. The car was black as an oven and too hot to touch. At 4:05 p.m., FBI director J. Edgar Hoover phoned the White House.

President Johnson ordered 200 men from the Meridian Naval Air Station to join the search. All that week Americans followed nightly news reports showing speedboats dragging muddy waters and sailors wading into fetid swamps. Still no trace. “I believe them jokers planned this and are sittin’ up in New York laughin’ at us Mississippi folk,” one man told ABC.

By early July, FBI posters of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were plastered all over the South. Agents tracked down every last rumor—“running down all leads on the cranks,” Hoover told LBJ—but came up empty. On July 10 Hoover flew to Mississippi on Johnson’s orders. Newspapers predicted a breakthrough, but Hoover could only tell reporters, “I don’t close it as an absolute certainty, but I consider that they are dead.”

As Freedom Summer continued, the search haunted every volunteer. “How the ghosts of those three shadow all our work,” one wrote home. Yet neither the disappearance nor whiplash violence could dampen the summer’s spirit. Each night, pickups with gun racks circled Freedom Houses. Black churches were set ablaze, homes and Freedom Houses bombed. Volunteers were beaten with fists and tire irons, chased past cotton fields, and arrested on trumped-up charges. Yet, day after day, college students sat on tumbledown porches talking to black Mississippians about their right to vote.

Mississippi’s Jim Crow terror made democracy a hard sell. But with the help of local heroes, who had organized long before Freedom Summer, canvassers recruited enough people to hold Freedom Day registration drives at courthouses. Other volunteers ran Freedom Houses featuring lending libraries and classes in literacy and voting rights. Throughout the summer, black and white Americans lived in the same shacks, shared meals, and built a human bridge across chasms far older than the Civil War. “Nobody never come out into the country and talked to real farmers and things,” SNCC stalwart Fannie Lou Hamer remembered. “And it was these kids what broke a lot of this down. They treated us like we were special, and we loved ’em.”