Are We Done With Murder?

LABA alum Gordon Haber considers Black History Month and the dangers of making America great again


In these days when we are exhorted to make America great again — in other words, to return to some vaguely articulated epoch of former glory — it’s probably a good idea to consider what a return to an earlier time actually means.  And as it’s Black History Month, it’s a good moment to reconsider the Freedom Summer of 1964, which exemplifies both the very best and very worst of the American people.

The Freedom Summer, or Mississippi Summer Project, was a voter registration drive aimed at helping the disenfranchised Blacks of Mississippi. The effort was sponsored by civil rights organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It involved around a thousand people, a combination of local workers, many of whom were Black, and out-of-state volunteers, most of whom were white, and many Jewish.

Nobody gives up power without a fight. The response of the white power structure was swift and violent. A combination of Ku Klux Klan members and local police — some of whom were in both organizations — proceeded, when possible, to beat the crap out of activists and Blacks who dared to register to vote. One famous incident included both arson and murder.

Michael Schwermer was a 24-year-old Jewish New Yorker who was in Mississippi that summer helping to register Blacks to vote and to organize a Black boycott of white-owned businesses. On June 16th, a group of about thirty men, a mixture of Klan members, police officers, and enthusiastic volunteers, drove to the Mount Zion Church of Longdale, Mississippi with the intention of killing Schwermer.

Schwermer, whom they referred to as “Jew-Boy,” was supposed to speak at the church that day; instead he was up in Ohio attending a training session. The frustrated white men, in an apparent effort to avoid a wasted day, beat local Blacks with rifle butts and then burned down the church. One of the white men was Cecil Price, a Klan member and county deputy sheriff.

When Schwermer heard about the church burning, he left immediately for Longdale. With him in the car were Andrew Goodman, another New York Jew, and James Chaney, a young Black man from Meridian, Mississippi.

When Price heard that the Jew-Boy and his friends had returned to the county, he tracked them down and arrested them, supposedly for speeding. Price held them in jail for a few hours. When he released the three young men, they wisely made for the county line; but Price pulled them over again, this time handing them over to a couple of carloads of KKK members. These brave white men put a bullet through Schwermer’s heart. Then they put a bullet through Goodman’s. They whipped Chaney with a chain before shooting him dead.

The state of Mississippi refused to investigate the murder. At the subsequent federal trial, although eighteen men were charged with civil rights violations, only seven men were convicted. None served more than six years in prison.

The Freedom Summer was over forty years ago. When you hear people talking about making America great again, it’s a fair bet that many are thinking of the early sixties. Isn’t it strange how they remember America’s military and economic might, but not those who died helping others, or the ones who murdered the helpers?

And how do the rest of us remember it? For some American Jews, the murders are emblematic of a time when Jews and Blacks worked together wipe out injustice, or tried to. I’ve also noticed an attendant feeling among some Jews that Blacks have somehow “turned against us,” that they refuse to acknowledge the contribution of American Jews to the civil rights movement. My own educated guess is that this isn’t quite true; it’s more that after a certain point Blacks got tired of even well-intentioned white people telling them what to do.

The more important thing to remember is that the Freedom Summer murders were a very rare instance of lynching Jews. But for Blacks, it is one of thousands. Millions, if we include those who died as slaves. I have zero desire to conclude with sweeping statements about relationships between American Blacks and Jews. I just want to point out that in 1964, the Jews were shot through the heart. The Black man was tortured first.

There is a kind of coda to the Freedom Summer story. In 2004, Hinds County sheriff Malcolm MacMillan re-opened the case and arrested Edgar Ray Killen. In 1964, Killen owned a local saw mill, preached part-time, and was a recruiter for the Neshoba County KKK, a position known as “kleagle.” Killen was found guilty of manslaughter. He got sixty years — twenty for each manslaughter conviction. He died in prison in 2018. I hope he died miserable.

The conspirators in the Freedom Summer murders. In the top right is Edgar Ray Killen.