Today Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney will be posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1964, when these three young men traveled and worked in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, I was too young to know what Freedom Summer was about or to understand how important the events that unfolded in Mississippi that summer were to our nation. When I moved to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the early 90s, I found myself immersed in life in a town that embodied the historical southern ethos of tradition, hospitality, and charm. However, there was a troubling and dark history associated with the town as well. This was the town made famous by the movie “Mississippi Burning” and, while the movie was in many ways fictionalized, it did portray the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney that dark summer in 1964. I read two books during my first month in Mississippi. The first was We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray. The second was Witness in Philadelphia by long-time Philadelphia resident Florence Mars.
I raised three young children in Philadelphia and taught in the local elementary school for several years. I remember being surprised that so many of its young residents knew very little about its legacy in civil rights history. And how many Philadelphians would not speak of its dark past. But I did meet a group of folks who wanted to confront the legacy and rectify a profound misdeed on the part of the state of Mississippi. You see, when Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were brutally murdered in 1964, the state refused to bring murder charges against the KKK. The federal government brought several of the criminals to trial for violating the Freedom Summer workers’ civil rights and there were some convictions. However, Mississippi refused to do hold anyone accountable for their murders. That is until a group of Philadelphians formed a coalition and worked diligently to bring about what some thought would never happen. In 2005 Edgar Ray Killen went on trial in Philadelphia and was convicted of being the KKK ring leader who orchestrated the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. I felt honored to be there during this momentous and historic moment. I was honored to become acquainted with Susan Glisson, Director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. And I was honored to be able to work with the institute in 2005 to organize a summit for educators that coincided with the trial at Philadelphia High School, just blocks from the courthouse.
This period in my professional and personal life solidified my resolve to focus my energies on issues of social justice. Now that I am a teacher educator, I want to ensure that my students understand what’s most important — the lives of the children they will teach. I want them to understand that you can’t simply talk about education reform without talking about social reform and I want them to understand that the struggle still continues. Andrew Goodman’s brother, David, wants to ensure that the work continues and that his brother’s legacy will never be forgotten.