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When the Klan murdered my protector
It made me see the world differently
In kindergarten, I was the shortest kid in all of South Salem’s Lewisboro Elementary School. This made me the target of kids who called me names (midget, mouse, and runt were among the kindest).
They hurled insulting jokes at me (“What’s the difference between a dwarf and a midget?” “Very little!” “Why are midgets constantly thirsty?” “They can’t reach the drinking fountains!”).
When they spotted me walking down the corridor, they sang “Shrimp Boats (is a-Comin’).”
I didn’t yet know the word “humiliated,” but that’s how I felt.
My mother and Grandma Minnie told me I was brilliant and wonderful and would one day be president. But in school, I felt worthless and ashamed.
The school playground and bus were particular danger zones.
On the playground, I tried to stay within eyesight of a teacher so the bullies wouldn’t dare harass me. It didn’t always work.
Once, when the teacher had gone inside, I was dragged off to a mock court behind a large tree where the child bullies charged me with being too short to be in school and threatened to punish me by whacking me over the head with a baseball bat. A kind third-grade boy came over to defend me, saying, “This is unfair!” and commanding them to release me in so loud a voice that they did.
I ran. A narrow escape.
When some second graders found me alone in the boys’ room, they threatened to hold me upside down and dunk my head in the toilet. I escaped that one by screaming as loud as I could, which stopped them long enough for me to run out of the boys’ room, down the corridor, and back to the safety of the kindergarten room.
For the next six months I refused to reenter the boys’ room, which led to some embarrassingly close calls with my bladder and colon. My tactic was to eat and drink nothing after breakfast so I wouldn’t have to risk it.
But on one occasion, I needed to poop so badly that I had to hop around the kindergarten room to avoid letting go. When my teacher couldn’t get me to stop hopping, she sent me to the principal’s office.
The principal, a kindly man named Charles Helmes (certain names are etched in one’s memory), sat down opposite from where I was hopping so he could look directly into my eyes, and asked if I was alright.
I told him I was fine. But when he put his hands on my shoulders to stop my hopping, I couldn’t control myself. I let loose — dumping what felt like a gigantic storehouse of poop on his carpeted floor.
I felt utterly and completely ashamed. My life was a total failure.
Mr. Helmes phoned my mother, who helped clean me up. A custodian cleaned up Mr. Helmes’s carpet.
After I explained to my mother and Mr. Helmes why I didn’t want to use the boys’ room, they came up with a solution. From then on, when I wanted to use the boys’ room, I should knock on the classroom door of a third grader named Jimmy Hoffman, who would accompany me and protect me from the bullies. Jimmy was the son of a friend of my mother’s whom she judged to be sufficiently mature to take on this responsibility.
Knocking on Jimmy’s classroom door when I had to use the boys’ room became an excruciating but necessary ritual. Whenever I appeared in the doorway, other third graders snickered. I was embarrassed, but I knew the alternative was worse.
After several months, Jimmy tired of being my protector, so I found another third grader who’d take it on. And then another.
For the next few years, I became adept at finding older boys who’d protect me from bullies.
When visiting my maternal grandmother at her cabin in the Adirondack Mountains, I met Mickey. He was a kind and gentle teenager with a ready smile who made sure I stayed safe from the local bullies.
I don’t recall asking Mickey to protect me. He wasn’t the kind of hulking kid I usually chose as protector. He was on the short side and thin. And I don’t remember Mickey putting up any kind of fight to defend me or even quieting the kids who made fun of me.
But I do remember Mickey’s warmth and reassuring presence. His calm good nature seemed to automatically cast a positive spell over kids who’d otherwise turn to bullying.
We were not friends. I was only eight, and he was a young teenager. Yet I loved him. Mickey wore a sailor’s cap and seemed forever cheerful.
Years went by, and I grew into a teenager who no longer needed older boys to protect me from bullies. I lost track of Mickey.
It wasn’t until September of 1964, my freshman year in college, that I heard what had happened to him.
Early that summer, Mickey had traveled to Mississippi to register Black voters.
The Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom. Martin Luther King Jr. had given his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the August 1963 March on Washington as 250,000 people gathered before him at the Lincoln Memorial.
Yet the South remained segregated, especially when it came to voting, where poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence were intended to silence and intimidate Black citizens.
Although about 40 percent of Mississippi’s population was Black, fewer than 7 percent were registered to vote. The system was enforced by white supremacists who could commit crimes with impunity because the entire region had become a one-party state.
“Freedom Summer” of 1964 brought together college students to work with Black people from Mississippi to register Black voters, under the aegis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Mickey — whose full name was Michael Schwerner — was among the first wave of volunteers to arrive in Mississippi.
On the afternoon of June 21, he and two other student volunteers — Andrew Goodman, who was also white, and James Chaney, a young Black man — were driving near Philadelphia, Mississippi, when Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price stopped them for allegedly speeding. Price locked them up in the local jail.
That night, after they paid their speeding ticket and left the jail, Price followed them in his police car, stopped them again, ordered them into his car, and took them down a deserted road, where he turned them over to a group of his fellow Ku Klux Klan members.
The group beat Mickey, Goodman, and Chaney with chains.
Then they murdered them. And buried their bodies in an earthen dam that was then under construction.
For weeks, no one knew what had happened to the three missing voting rights workers.
Lyndon Johnson used concern over their disappearance to pressure the House to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on July 2. Just before he signed the bill, Johnson addressed the American people on television “to talk to you about what that law means to every American.” He said:
“One hundred and eighty-eight years ago this week, a small band of valiant men began a long struggle for freedom … but those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.”
Johnson was proud that his bill had bipartisan backing of more than two thirds of the lawmakers in Congress and enjoyed the support of “the great majority of the American people.”
“The purpose of the law is simple. It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others. It does not give special treatment to any citizen…. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions—divisions which have lasted all too long. Its purpose is national, not regional. Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity. We will achieve these goals because most Americans are law-abiding citizens who want to do what is right. My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail.”
On July 16, two weeks after Johnson signed the bill and a little more than three weeks after Mickey, Chaney, and Goodman had disappeared, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater strode across the stage at the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to accept the GOP’s nomination.
Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act. At the convention, the votes of the delegates from South Carolina put Goldwater over the top for the nomination.
Goldwater told Republican delegates that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Mickey’s body and those of Chaney and Goodman were found on August 4. They were illustrations of extremism in the defense of what white supremacists defined as liberty.
The state of Mississippi refused to bring murder charges against any of the killers.
Eventually, Price and Neshoba County Sheriff Laurence Rainey, also a Klan member, and 16 others, including Samuel Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of Mississippi’s White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, were arraigned for the federal crime of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the murdered young men.
An all-white jury found seven of the defendants guilty, including Price and Bowers. After several unsuccessful appeals, each received a sentence of between three and 10 years. Ultimately none would serve more than six years behind bars.
When the news reached me that Mickey, who had protected me from childhood bullies, had been tortured and murdered by white supremacists — by violent bullies who would stop at nothing to prevent Black people from exercising their right to vote — something snapped inside me.
It was as if I got a new pair of eyes. I began to see everything differently.
Before then, I understood bullying as a few kids picking on me for being short — making me feel bad about myself.
After I learned what happened to Mickey, I began to see bullying on a larger scale, all around me. In Black people bullied by whites. In workers bullied on the job. In girls and women bullied by men. In the disabled or gay or poor or sick or immigrant bullied by employers, landlords, politicians, insurance companies.
I saw the powerful and the powerless, the exploiters and the exploited.
It seemed as if the world had changed, but I had changed. I had a different understanding of the meaning of justice. It became as personal to me as were the bullies who called me names and threatened me in school and on the playground — but larger, more encompassing, and more urgent.
After their murders, Freedom Summer continued. Activists were emboldened rather than intimidated. Almost 1,000 volunteers bolstered the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration drives, Freedom Schools, and literacy and civics classes.
That fall, some Berkeley students who had participated in Freedom Summer tried to set up tables in Sproul Plaza, near the center of the Berkeley campus, to recruit more students to register Black voters in the South the following summer and raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Berkeley had banned all political activity and fundraising on campus. University police arrested a student who was manning the table and put him in a police car.
That lit a fuse. Someone in the surrounding crowd yelled “we can see better if we sit down.”
As the call to “sit down” echoed through the plaza, hundreds of students sat, trapping the police car.
A graduate student named Mario Savio removed his shoes and climbed on top of the car and addressed the crowd.
Savio had been in Mississippi for Freedom Summer. He soon emerged as the leader of what came to be known across America as the Free Speech Movement.
Savio’s words struck not only at the modern university but at all American society:
“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
Hundreds of students occupied the administration building, leading police to make the largest mass arrest of students in American history and shocking a public accustomed to campus conformity.
As Savio told The Washington Post, there was a direct connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Free Speech Movement. Both raised the question of whose side one was on.
“Are we on the side of the civil rights movement? Or have we gotten back to the comfort and security of Berkeley, California, and can we forget the sharecroppers whom we worked with just a few weeks back? Well, we couldn’t forget.”
On Election Day 1964, Johnson crushed Goldwater, carrying more than 60 percent of the vote. Goldwater won only his home state of Arizona and five Deep South states that had long leaned Democratic but were struggling with the party’s actions supporting civil rights.
While his own bid for the White House flamed out, the embers of Goldwater’s political philosophy — championing small government and individual freedoms, stoking racism and hate — would ignite the party’s right wing for decades to come.