Obama to Posthumously Honor Civil Rights Activists

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, killed by the KKK in 1964, will receive Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Ben Ariel,

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama
Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced 19 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including three Jewish civil rights workers killed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Mississippi in 1964, according to the Mississippi-based Clarion-Ledger.

"From activists who fought for change to artists who explored the furthest reaches of our imagination; from scientists who kept America on the cutting edge to public servants who help write new chapters in our American story, these citizens have made extraordinary contributions to our country and the world," he said.

The medal will be awarded on November 24 to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed on June 21, 1964, near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Mississippi's senators and a congressman have also been sponsoring legislation to get the trio Congressional Gold Medals.

"These men paid the ultimate sacrifice to bring justice and equality to every American," said U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. "Their courageous actions in the face of danger helped turn the course of history in the United States."

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, where Goodman and Schwerner were from, is also sponsoring the bill.

"Voting is one of the most sacred rights we have as Americans and it is important for us to reflect on our past and honor those who have fought to ensure every citizen has access to that basic freedom," she said, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

"James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were unsung heroes who sacrificed their lives in the fight for freedom, justice and equality for all. This recognition is long overdue, and I will push to make sure that these brave souls are awarded this honor and that the Gold Medal can stand as a memorial to commemorate their lives and fearlessness," added Gillibrand.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, where college students and other volunteers joined the push to enable African Americans to vote. That push was met with violence, resulting in arrests, beatings and church bombings.

On the first day of that summer, the Ku Klux Klan killed Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. 44 days later, FBI agents found the trio's bodies buried 15 feet beneath an earthen dam.

Their June 21, 1964, killings fueled support for the civil rights movement and helped transform President Lyndon Johnson into a strong supporter, ending one speech with the words of the grass-roots anthem "We Shall Overcome."

In October 1967, a jury in Meridian heard the case against 18 men, who faced federal conspiracy charges.

The jury convicted seven, including Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, but reputed Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen walked free after they deadlocked 11-1 in favor of his guilt. Jurors said the lone holdout told them she could "never convict a preacher."

Mississippi authorities reopened the case in 1999 after the Clarion-Ledger published excerpts of a sealed interview with Bowers, who ordered the trio's killings.

Schwerner's widow, Rita Bender, said the best honor Congress "could give to these men and all the others killed or injured in the struggle for voting rights and the dismantling of Jim Crow would be the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act and its aggressive enforcement."

Goodman's brother, David, said he believes that "all the other 900 volunteers in Freedom Summer were heroes, too."




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