The murder of civil rights activist Heather Heyer, as she peacefully opposed a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, calls to mind August 1964, when the bodies of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were found buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Then, as now, the country was riveted by what the president would do in the face of a horrifying racial tragedy.
Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman had been working for the Mississippi Summer Project, an effort by a coalition of civil rights organizations (the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to challenge the racism of Mississippi by registering black voters and starting Freedom Schools.
After the three civil rights workers disappeared on June 21, the only trace of them was the blue Ford station wagon they had been driving, which was found burned and abandoned in the nearby Bogue Chitto swamp.
Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman reflected the diversity of the Summer Project. Schwerner, 24, was a white social worker from New York, who with his wife, Rita, ran the Congress of Racial Equality Community Center in Meridian, Mississippi. Chaney, 21, was a black Mississippian who worked with the Schwerners at the Community Center. Goodman, 20, was a white student from Queens College in New York, who had never been to Mississippi before.
Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman joined the Summer Project knowing it was dangerous work they would be doing. Bob Moses, the director of the Summer Project, made it clear that the Summer Project was designed to challenge the country’s indifference to the killing of Southern blacks.
During their training session in Ohio, Moses told the volunteers, “When you come South, you bring with you the concern of the country, because the people of the country don’t identify with Negroes.”
When Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman disappeared, President Lyndon Johnson ordered sailors from the naval air station in Meridian, Mississippi, to help search for the missing workers, and he used the nation’s shock over the disappearance of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman to pressure Congress into reaching agreement on the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The president realized he had to move swiftly to counter Mississippi governor Paul Johnson Jr., who days after the disappearance of the three civil rights workers declared on national television, “We are going to see that law and order is maintained, and maintained Mississippi style.”
Lyndon Johnson also knew that he had to follow up on his initial actions. One of the most important decisions made by the Johnson Justice Department was to indict the men responsible for the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman for violating the latters’ civil rights (it was the highest federal charge the government could bring at that time.)
In securing the conviction of seven of the defendants, including a deputy sheriff—in a trial in which John Doar, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, personally led the prosecution—the federal government sent a powerful message on how it was prepared to deal with racial violence.
Today, no such message is coming from President Trump. His decision to equate the actions of those in Charlottesville protesting racism with the actions of neo-Nazi and white supremacist demonstrators has made it impossible for him to speak with moral authority. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth,” David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, recently tweeted.
The only question remaining for the Trump administration is how the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will react to Charlottesville. As of now, the most compelling response we have to the death of Heather Heyer comes from her mother, Susan Bro. “I’m going to be the voice that she can no longer be,” her mother observed. “I want her death to be a rallying cry for justice and equality and fairness and compassion.”
Susan Bro’s words echo those voiced more than 50 years ago by the parents of Andrew Goodman, who told the media, “Our grief, though personal, belongs to our nation. This tragedy is not private. It is part of the public conscience of our country.” The difference is the Goodmans knew their president heard them.
Nicolaus Mills is author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America. He chairs the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College.