By Kevin Paul Sweetser
In the fall of 1963, I attended an after school recreational program. I was 9 years old and my brother, Larry, two years older, also participated. My family and I lived at the Alfred E. Smith Housing Project on the lower east side of Manhattan. My mom and dad were one of the first tenants that moved into the project in October, 1949. The after school program at Hamilton-Madison House was located at 50 Madison Street.
This area was was known as the Five Points, or 4th Ward, in the shadows of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. It was a tough area at the turn of the century, with rival gangs fighting amongst themselves for control of illegal activities that flourished throughout the neighborhood. My grammar school, P.S. 1, was made up of African-Americans, Asians, Latino, and White children. It was an area with a lot of diversity and different cultural experiences.
Hamilton-Madison House was a focal point for boys in the Alfred E. Smith project to learn to play basketball, and participate in various recreational activities. It was a safe haven that kept us out of trouble after school. It was there I met the youth counselor, Michael (Mike as we called him) Schwerner, a young 24 year old Cornell University graduate.
Mike had a very outgoing personality and engaged all of us in the activities at Hamilton-Madison House. He also had a warm jovial demeanor and big smile. One day that Fall, Mike had all the kids in my group assemble as he wanted to tell us something. We sat in a circle on the gymnasium floor. Mike informed us that he would be leaving us soon. We were surprised and sad not knowing in our young minds why he was leaving. Looking around at our faces, he began to tell us why. He began by saying he was going down South “to help negro people (as African-Americans were referred to back then) register to vote.” We really did not understand what that meant, but we knew it must have been important.
Mike and his wife, Rita, had joined C.O.R.E., the Congress of Racial Equality, an African-American civil rights organization in 1963. Before Mike and his wife left NYC on January 15, 1964, the day I turned 10, and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., he came up to our apartment and said goodbye to my Mom and family. Shortly after arriving in Meridian, Mississippi, Mike and Rita opened one of the first community centers for African-Americans. They were joined by Andrew Goodman, 20, a student volunteer from Queens, NY, and James Cheney, 21, a local African-American laborer from Meridian. Soon there after, the young men were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. On the morning of June 21, 1964, Cheney drove a Ford station wagon with Goodman and Schwerner to investigate the burning of the Mount Zion Methodist Church, that had an African-American congregation located in Philadelphia, Mississippi 35 miles away.
On there way back to Meridian that afternoon, they were pulled over by a Neshoba County deputy sheriff for speeding. They were taken to a county jail and subsequently released around 10:30 pm after Mr. Cheney paid a twenty dollar fine. The three young civil rights workers got in their Ford station wagon for their trip back home. They never made it. The following day, the three men were reported missing. A few days later, whispers about their disappearance were circulating in my neighborhood. The kids in my group and I wondered what happened to them. After national media attention. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the F.B.I. to investigate the disappearance of the three civil rights workers. It would be a month and a half before their car and bodies were discovered buried deep in the earth on a farmer’s field. As the news channels broke the story and the unearthing of their bodies, I cried thinking how horrible Mike and the two others were murdered and how scared they must have been.
It was called Freedom Summer in 1964 where the civil rights movement was in full force in Mississippi. Three young men that summer gave their lives for a cause they believed in. A year later, President Johnson would sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Much has been written about Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner. The movie, “Mississippi Burning” is based on that fateful night of June 21, 1964.
This year marks the 55th Anniversary of their murders. Although Mike was in my young life for a short time, I’ve never forgotten his face, smile, and the exemplary courage he bestowed on me and a group of project boys on the lower east side.