Fifty years ago this month, three young civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Miss. One was an African-American, and the other two were Jewish-Americans. Their last names — Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — stand for the martyrdom of that era.
On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, were murdered while in Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote during Freedom Summer. The men, all members of the Congress of Racial Equality, were investigating the burning of a black church when they were stopped and jailed by a deputy sheriff who was a member of the Klan. The three were released on bail but later shot to death by a lynch mob of Klan members, who buried them in an earthen dam.
Two days later, federal agents found the activists’ burned station wagon, and on August 4, their bodies were found. Nineteen men were indicted in federal court. After a three-year trial, seven of the defendants were found guilty, nine were acquitted, and the all-white jury deadlocked on the remaining three defendants.
It was the first time anyone was convicted of crimes against civil rights workers. This horrific crime opened America’s eyes to the brutality of racism, and that realization played an important role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Fifty years later, there is no question that much has changed in America. There is a black president in the White House. One in 10 marriages is interracial, and a majority of babies born in the United States are now children of color. And yet, despite these changes — even because of them — there is a conservative backlash against civil rights.
Declaring racism is over, the U.S. Supreme Court has waged an assault on civil rights with the hollowing out of the Voting Rights Act and an attack on affirmative action. Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed voter ID laws that disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos.
“Stand Your Ground” laws have led to deadly force being used against unarmed young blacks such as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. In the name of the war on drugs, the criminal justice system targets people of color. Black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males, often for drug offenses, even though there is virtually no difference in the consumption rates of illegal drugs by race.
Meanwhile, segregation in public education persists, with a school-to-prison pipeline that all too often treats black and Latino boys as criminals starting in kindergarten. Hate groups and extremist militias are on the rise. Members of these groups are armed and dangerous, as we recently saw in Las Vegas.
America is a different place since Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were martyred five decades ago. But we are a long way from realizing the promise of those young civil rights martyrs’ ideals.