Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Pelham Native Son and Civil Rights Worker Michael Henry "Mickey" Schwerner Was Murdered in Mississippi 52 Years Ago Today

Fifty-two years ago today, on June 21, 1964, a Pelham native son and civil rights worker named Michael Henry "Mickey" Schwerner, was one of three civil rights workers murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County, Mississippi.  Mickey Schwerner grew up in Pelham and graduated from Pelham Memorial High School in 1957.  

The brutal killings continue to make headlines more than fifty years later.  Only yesterday, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced a decision to close the five-decade-old investigation into the murders of the three young men during the Freedom Summer of 1964. As noted in an associated announcement by the U.S. Justice Department:

"The Justice Department has investigated this case three times over 50 years and has helped convict nine individuals for their roles in this heinous crime. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted by a state jury of three counts of manslaughter based on new information that state and federal prosecutors discovered and pursued in 2000. With the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act in 2008, the department reopened our investigation into the incident again in 2010. The department’s focus during this third investigation honed in on determining whether sufficient admissible evidence existed to support further state prosecution against any surviving person for involvement in the murders."

Source:  United States Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs, Statement from Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta on Mississippi's Decision to Close Investigation into Murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (Jun. 20, 2016) (visited Jun. 20, 2016).  See also Office of the Mississippi Attorney General, Attorney General Jim Hood Announces The Conclusion of the State and Federal "Mississippi Burning" Case (Jun. 20, 2016) (visited Jun. 20, 2016).

The murders and the murder investigations that followed are infamous in the civil rights history of our nation and continue to attract widespread attention in the media, including an article in today's New York Times.  See Robertson, Campbell, Mississippi Ends Inquiry Into 1964 Killing of 3 Civil Rights Workers, N.Y. Times, Jun. 20, 2016, National Edition, p. A11, col. 1 (visited Jun. 21, 2016).  For those of us who lived in Mississippi at the time, including this author, the events of that day remain a vivid and horrifying part of our memories.

Michael Henry "Mickey" Schwerner (1939-1964)

Michael Henry Schwerner lived with his family in New York City until he was eight years old.  His family then moved to Westchester County.  Known affectionately by family and friends as “Mickey”, Schwerner was a musician and played sports including football, baseball and basketball. 

He graduated from Pelham Memorial High School in 1957 and matriculated at Michigan State University.  After his first year at Michigan State, he transferred closer to home to Cornell University where he majored in sociology with a specialty in  rural sociology.  After graduating from Cornell, Schwerner enrolled in a graduate program in sociology at Columbia University, but left the program for employment as a social worker in a housing project in New York City. 
Michael Scherner married a Queen’s College student who majored in education.  Her name was Rita Levant. 

Michael and Rita reportedly were deeply affected by reports of the Birmingham Riots in 1963.  Michael applied to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) asking to be posted in the South.  CORE hired him as a field worker in January 1964.  According to one report “On January 15, 1964, Michael and Rita left New York in their VW Beetle for Mississippi.  After talking with civil rights leader Bob Moses in Jackson, Schwerner was sent to Meridian [Mississippi] to organize the community center and other programs in the largest city in eastern Mississippi.  Schwerner became the first white civil rights worker to be permanently based outside of the capitol of Jackson.”

Schwerner quickly enraged local racists and members of the Ku Klux Klan by organizing a boycott of a small store that sold goods to the African American community but refused to hire African Americans.  He also worked hard to register African Americans to vote.  As a result, Schwerner was the target of hate mail, police harassment and threatening phone calls.

In late May, 1964, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney visited the Mount Zion Church in Neshoba County, Mississippi seeking permission to use the congregation’s church building for a “Freedom School” to help organize the local African American community.  On June 16, while Schwerner was attending a civil rights worker training session for Freedom Summer volunteers in Ohio, local Klansmen in Neshoba County, Mississippi burned the Mount Zion Church to the ground. 

On June 21, Michael Schwerner returned to Neshoba County along with James Chaney and Andy Goodman hoping to meet with those who had been terrorized and who had lost their church building as a result of Schwerner’s efforts on their behalf.

On their way back to Meridian from Neshoba County, the three young men were stopped in their blue station wagon by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price.  He arrested the three and took them to the Philadelphia County Jail.  Price conspired with local Klansmen and alerted them that he had arrested the three and that he would release them later that night.  The three were released from jail at 10:00 p.m. that night.  The civil rights workers drove away in their blue station wagon.  The car was overtaken on a rural road by Klansmen who beat and shot the three and buried their bodies in a local earthen dam. 

These tragic events prompted a federal crackdown on Mississippi and led to the infamous “Mississippi Burning” trial of many of the conspirators involved in the murders. 

Michael Schwerner’s entry in the Senior section of the 1957 edition of Pelham Memorial High School’s Pelican yearbook tells us a lot about the young man.  In addition to his photo (see above), the entry includes the following text:

“MICHAEL HENRY SCHWERNER  238 – Pelican Board 4; Band 2,3; Orchestra 2,3; Sock and Buskin 3; “Best Foot Forward” 3; Football 2, 3, 4; Varsity Manager 2; Basketball 2, 3, 4; Baseball 2, 3, 4; J.V. 2; Varsity 3, 4. 
 “Michigan State
“Mickey”; Never a dull moment; one of the few ‘dry’ seniors; singing Rock ‘n Roll with the boys; ‘Hey, Man!’”
Much has been written of these events.  To learn more, see Huie, William Bradford, Three Lives for Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi 2000) (paperback; 184 pages). 

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