Remembering the Mississippi Burning of 50 years ago

On Sunday, June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers vanished in Mississippi.

Forty-four days later, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were finally located. These three young men were slain by members of the Ku Klux Klan and their bodies concealed beneath an earthen dam. The killers used a bulldozer to attempt to cover over the evidence of their crimes.

Many of us will find it impossible to imagine the agony and grief experienced by the parents of those three young men. As we mark the 50th anniversary of those dark times, there is a way that we can witness these events as seen through the eyes of someone who endured them.

Carolyn Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman, has written about it.

Her recollections have just been published posthumously in the book “My Mantelpiece - a Memoir of Survival and Social Justice.” Goodman, who died in 2007, wrote this memoir with the assistance of writer Brad Herzog.

The death of her son Andrew was a catalyzing moment in her life, but there’s much more to her story. She lived a long, active life that was marked by tragic events and significant achievements. She was born in 1915 and even her earliest memories were marred by tragedy.

When she was 5 years old her brother Eddie died. She recalls that “my brother, my playmate, my protector had been taken from me in the blink of an eye.” Her parents didn’t really talk to her about it.

The litany of troubling things in her life would be enough to break most hearts, but not hers. She professed to learning a secret of survival when she was 8 years old at a summer camp. She was having a difficult time swimming across the lake: “and I made it. Barely, but I made it. Ever after, when I felt I was going under, when I suffered a loss so great that there appeared no chance of ever raising my head above water again, I just kept telling myself over and over again: Carolyn, just keep going. One arm over the other, one over the other.”

She met Bobby. They married and had three sons. Andrew Goodman was their middle boy. His mother describes the fateful choice he made: “In the spring of 1964, he stood in the doorway of my bedroom one afternoon with an earnest look in his soft brown eyes and said, ‘Mom, I’d like to go to Mississippi.’”

Andrew wanted to be part of the Mississippi Summer Project: “The volunteers would form ‘freedom schools’ to teach disenfranchised blacks about their constitutional rights and would engage in a massive voter registration drive.”

Goodman reveals that “many people involved with the project, we later discovered, secretly believed that the inevitable violence against these so-called Yankee do-gooders would direct the nation’s attention to the intolerable conditions in the state. It was a recipe for martyrdom.”

They let their Andrew go. They never saw him again. As we remember Mississippi Burning from across the interval of a half century this mother’s potent memoir serves to remind us to honor the sacrifices made by people like Andrew Goodman.

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