Michael Schwerner, 24, of Pelham, N.Y. / AP photo
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- They were down South during that Freedom Summer of 1964, along with hundreds of others committed to helping blacks register to vote in Mississippi.
A half century ago, on June 21, 1964, civil rights activists Michael Schwerner of Pelham, N.Y., Andrew Goodman of New York City and James Chaney of Meridian, Miss., disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss. Their decomposed bodies were found 44 days later in an earthen dam â?? victims of local officials and the Ku Klux Klan. Schwerner and Goodman were both shot in the chest. Chaney, who was black, had been beaten to death.
Schwerner was a 1957 graduate of Pelham Memorial High School, where he and his colleagues are remembered with a plaque. His mother taught in the New Rochelle schools.
"When we heard the news, one of the girls said, 'If I know Mickey, this is just one of his pranks,' " recalled Valerie DelPriore of New Rochelle, who had known Schwerner since grade school. "When we were kids he was always pulling jokes. He was a very friendly, happy person. We didn't know he was in the civil rights movement. What happened just broke my heart. It's something that's stayed with me forever."
At the time of the murders, Frank Williams, director of the White Plains Youth Bureau, was a 12-year-old African-American growing up in Canton, Mississippi, not far from Philadelphia.
"My parents were both active in the movement, and I remember the protests and the anger and the fear and the courage," he said. "Sometimes we forget that the civil rights movement was not just a black event. It involved a diverse community of people from all over the country and all walks of life. There were thousands of foot soldiers, like Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman who came together and worked together and sacrificed together to change this country."
The murders were met with national outrage and prompted a large FBI investigation. The federal government eventually arrested 18 people in the deaths, but was able to convict only seven, who received minor sentences. In 2005, however, former KKK leader Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter for orchestrating the murders. Sentenced to the maximum of 60 years in prison, the U.S. Supreme Court in November rejected his appeal.
The murders were dramatized in the 1988 Oscar-winning movie Mississippi Burning.
"My heart was with them," said Harriet Rosenberg of Mahopac, who graduated from Pelham a year before Schwerner. "When I heard the news, I remember thinking about how young and courageous they were, and about what terrible people there were in the world, who could do something like that."
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