Forty-seven years ago this month Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in the dead of a June night near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
On June 21, 1964 the three young men, who had joined the Freedom Summer campaign to register as many African Americans voters as possible in Mississippi, were arrested for allegedly driving over the speed limit and were held at the county jail until nightfall. While driving away from town after their release, they were accosted by county police and delivered into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. A lynch mob took them into the woods, beat Chaney, shot the others, killing all three men, and buried them in an earthen dam.
Last summer, while preparing the papers of artist Ben Shahn for digitization, I came across several reproductions of screenprints that Shahn had made of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner in 1965. Later, a letter in a folder labeled “Miscellaneous-G” caught my eye. Dated June 1965, it was written to Shahn by Andrew Goodman’s mother, Carolyn. Shahn had sent her a print of the drawing of “Andy” and inscribed it with a line from the Stephen Spender poem, “I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great.” Goodman felt that the words in the poem’s last stanza so aptly expressed the meaning of her son’s life, that they should be used for his epitaph.
It was over forty years before a Mississippi jury convicted ringleader Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter in the murders of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. Carolyn Goodman was alive to witness Killen’s conviction in 2005, but I wonder at the anguish she must have felt in waiting so long for justice.
Yet this letter, written less than a year after her son’s death, transcends the horrendous act of violence that ended his short life. In the face of unimaginable pain, her words are a testament to the resilience and generosity of the human spirit—and a reminder that through such strength and grace the cycle of hatred can be broken.
Stephanie Ashley is a processing archivist at the Archives American Art.