Michael Henry Schwerner (November 6, 1939 – June 21, 1964), was one of three Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field workers killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, by the Ku Klux Klan in response to their civil rights work, which included promoting voting registration among Mississippi African Americans. He is portrayed in the film Mississippi Burning by actor Geoffrey Nauftts who is identified in the credits simply as “Goatee.”
Early life and education
Born and raised in a house of Jewish heritage, Schwerner attended Pelham Memorial High School in Pelham, New York. He was called Mickey by friends . His mother was a science teacher at New Rochelle High School and his father was a businessman. Schwerner attended Michigan State University, originally intending to become a veterinarian. He transferred to Cornell University, and switched his major to sociology. While an undergraduate at Cornell, he integrated the school’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity. He entered graduate school at the School of Social Work at Columbia University.
As a boy, Schwerner befriended Robert Reich, later US Secretary of Labor, and served as his protector against bullies.
Civil rights activism
He later led a local Congress of Racial Equality group on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, called “Downtown CORE,” and participated in a 1963 effort to desegregate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Maryland. The situation in the South led Schwerner and his wife Rita to volunteer to work for National CORE in Mississippi, under the tutelage of Dave Dennis, Mississippi Director of CORE. Bob Moses assigned the Schwerners to organize the community center and activities in Meridian, making Schwerner the first white to be posted permanently outside Jackson.
Civil rights activists were under suspicion in Mississippi, especially those from the North. Spies paid by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission kept track of all northerners and activists. The records opened by court order in 1998 also revealed the state’s deep complicity in the murders of three civil rights workers at Philadelphia, Mississippi, because its investigator A.L. Hopkins passed on information about the workers, including the car license number of a new civil rights worker, to the commission. Records showed the commission passed the information on to the Sheriff of Neshoba County, who was implicated in the murders.
Schwerner had been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan after he and his wife, Rita, had taken over a field office in Meridian, Mississippi. There they established a community center for blacks. Schwerner tried to establish contact with white working class citizens of Meridian, and went door-to-door to speak with them. He also organized a black boycott of a popular variety store until it hired its first African American.
Schwerner’s murder occurred near the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. He and fellow workers James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were investigating the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, which had been a site for a CORE Freedom School. Parishioners had been beaten in the wake of Schwerner and Chaney’s voter registration rallies for CORE. The Sheriff’s Deputy, Cecil Price, had been accused by parishioners of stopping their caravan, and forcing the deacons to kneel in the headlights of their own cars, while they were beaten with rifle butts. That same group was identified as the burners of the church.
The three (Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman) were arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for an alleged traffic violation and taken to the jail in Neshoba County. They were released that evening, without being allowed to telephone anyone. On the way back to Meridian, they were stopped by patrol lights and two carloads of KKK members on Highway 19, then taken in the car to another remote rural road. The men approached then shot and killed Schwerner, then Goodman, and finally Chaney, after chain-whipping him.
The men’s bodies remained undiscovered for nearly two months. In the meantime, the case of the missing civil-rights workers became a major national story, especially coming on top of other events during Freedom Summer.
Schwerner’s widow Rita, who also worked for CORE in Meridian, expressed indignation publicly at the way the story was handled. She said she believed that if only Chaney (who was black) were missing and not two white men from New York along with him, the case would not have received nearly as much attention.
The US government prosecuted the case under the Force Act of 1870. Seven men, including Deputy Sheriff Price, were convicted. Three strongly implicated defendants were acquitted because of a jury deadlock.
Journalist Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger had written extensively about the case for many years. Mitchell had earned renown for helping secure convictions in several other high profile Civil Rights Era murder cases, including the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham Church bombing, and the murder of Vernon Dahmer. He developed new evidence, found new witnesses, and pressured the State to take action. Barry Bradford, an Illinois high school teacher, and three students: Allison Nichols, Sarah Siegel, and Brittany Saltiel, joined Mitchell’s efforts. Their documentary, produced for the National History Day contest presented important new evidence and compelling reasons for reopening the case. Bradford also obtained an interview with Edgar Ray Killen which helped convince the State to reinvestigate. Mitchell was able to determine the identity of “Mr. X” the mystery informer who had helped the FBI discover the bodies and smash the conspiracy of the Klan in 1964, in part using evidence developed by Barry Bradford.
On January 7, 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, an outspoken white supremacist nicknamed “Preacher,” pleaded “Not Guilty” to Schwerner’s murder. The jury found him guilty of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005. He was sentenced to sixty years in prison—twenty years for each count, served consecutively.
He was described by family and friends as “friendly, good natured, gentle, mischievous, and “full of life and ideas.” He believed all people were essentially good. He named his cocker spaniel “Ghandhi.” He loved sports, animals, poker, W.C. Fields, and rock music.”
New York City named “Freedom Place,” a four-block stretch in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in honor of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. A plaque on 70th Street and Freedom Place (Riverside Blvd) tells his story.