Once There Was A Time

Once There Was A Time

Associate Editor

If you ever loved and crashed with a broken heart, you understand: Long after the story is over, you go back to those places where something special happened. What is Zionism, after all, but after 2,000 years, going back to that place where Godís love wasnít hidden, a place before exile? For others, that place is a New England town meeting, a Civil War letter, a minor league field. For liberal Jews, too, there was a time, when black-Jewish relations made beautiful sense, when the impulse was biblical and the names were Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, not Cato and Rosenbaum. Maybe it was inevitable, even necessary, that this "love" end in exile, but once there was a time.

Most visitors drive past the columned, red-brick Neshoba County courthouse. The tourists head for the Silver Star gambling casino run by Choctaw Indians just outside Philadelphia, Miss. Nearby is a river in whose earthen dam three civil rights workers were found murdered in 1964: A black, James Chaney, and two Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

It is unseemly how their tragedy is made to give way to the celebration of a symbol, for proof that Jews and blacks once had something. Such is a martyr's fate.

1964 was Freedom Summer. You got there by bus. Hundreds of civil rights workers — more than half of them Jews — went to Mississippi, on Freedom Rides, to change the world.

Mississippi was the poorest state in the country: 45 percent of the state was black; 86 percent of those blacks lived in poverty; only 5 percent were registered to vote. Black churches that gave quarter to the civil rights movement were regularly firebombed.

Thirty-five years later, Jews and blacks will be going back, returning from our mutual exile. More than 100 buses are going to roll, June 16-23, Freedom Ride 1999, from all over the country, heading to Chaney's grave; the New York taking-off point will be the Holocaust museum in Battery Park.

The honorary co-chairs of the project are Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movementís Religious Action Center, and Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP. There's always someone doing the real work, though, and that's Ben Chaney (brother of James), operating the James Chaney Foundation out of one windowless room in the Village.

Ben is 46, but when it comes to his big brother James, he's forever 11 and James is forever 21.

Schwerner, 24, a New York Jew, came to Mississippi in December of '63, to coordinate civil rights work in a quadrant of the state. In January he showed up at the Chaney's place in Meridian. James Chaney was his contact.

Ben remembers James and Schwerner taking off into the backwoods, late at night. "If anyone saw a black and white together in a car it was trouble, so Mickey would lay down in the back seat and my brother would drive." In June, Schwerner and Chaney went up to Ohio, recruiting volunteers. They met Andy Goodman, 20, another Jew from New York. He packed his duffel bag with bandages and antiseptics. (Goodman's mother, Carolyn, now 83, was one of those recently arrested in New York, protesting the police killing of Amadou Diallo. Goodman told reporters that Diallo, an African in the Bronx, and her son in Mississippi, were both strangers in a strange land.)

Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney drove down to Meridian on a Saturday. Sunday was Father's Day, June 21. Mother Chaney served a Sunday breakfast of biscuits, eggs, fried apples and maybe some bacon, recalls Ben.

Schwerner loved the New York Mets. The last time he opened a Sunday sports section he saw there'd be a doubleheader that day at Shea, what would be Jim Bunning's perfect game. Schwerner finished breakfast. Little Ben Chaney was dressed for church. Goodman, Schwerner and James Chaney left for a rendezvous with the devil.

"Mickey and my brother knew each other about six months and became extremely close," remembers Ben. "He was a unique character altogether. I'll put it to you this way: We didn't have white folks come to our house, sleep, use our bathroom, shower, and sit down to eat. He did.

"One day, after a demonstration, all of us got locked up. The magistrate, he called Mickey all kind of names: 'dirty, communist, red, Jew. If you ever get these picaninnies in trouble again…' It was the first time I realized Mickey was Jewish. It never came up," says Ben.

Although Schwerner is now a Jewish icon, his Jewishness "didn't seem to matter," says Ben. The Chaneys knew the goateed Schwerner loved the Mets, Brooklyn, blues, jazz, but didnít speak of his Judaism. He didn't even want to talk like a Jew. "Just to hear him talk, you'd swear he was a black Mississippian from the Delta."

He didn't want to be buried as a Jew. When the bodies were found, according to Ben, the Schwerner family didn't want a Jewish funeral but rather that Mickey be buried next to Chaney in a churchyard. That was against Mississippi law. "I think he got cremated," says Ben.

When the time came, the Chaney family church didn't want James Chaney in their cemetery, either. They were afraid of vandalism by the Klan. He's buried in an obscure cemetery on the edge of town, yards away from the nearest grave; 35 years later, it's still being vandalized.

On Sunday night, June 21, 1964, the Ford station wagon carrying Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney was pulled over. Ben says. "The first person they shot was Mickey. They pulled him out of the car, and with a gun pointed said, 'So you're that nigger lover that wants to tell us what to do with all our niggers in Mississippi?

"And Mickey said, very calmly, and this is in the court transcript, 'Sir, I know how you feel.' And they shot him there, in Neshoba County."

No one was ever convicted of the murders. The Neshoba County deputy sheriff and 16 others were only convicted of civil rights violations.

Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were missing for 44 days. "I didn't figure they were dead," says Ben. "I just had this feeling that my brother was going to come out OK, because he was my big brother, see. … The 44 days were hard on my mother. She kept a clean house, but now she was cleaning four, five times a day. She'd take the dishes out of the cabinets, wash them and put them back again. She'd walk around the house, humming 'Rock of Ages' and other spirituals. I'd wake up in the night, and I'd just hear her humming away, singing spirituals.

"Time was, I could go down the street, to the park or something, without telling her. We had a white house with big wrap-around porch and a big ol' tree out front. We had a big back yard where my brother taught me football. But after James was missing, I couldn't even sit on the porch unless she was sitting there with me."

Small crosses, about four feet high, were burned on their lawn. Bullets were fired at the house. "Then we moved to New York," says Ben, "and my mother just relaxed.

"There were different kinds of people here." The kind of people who took buses to Mississippi.

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