06/23/2014 02:01 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

Remembering Slain Civil Rights Workers, 50 Years Later

Thursday was the 50th anniversary of the moment we found out that three young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were missing in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

On February 21st of this year I wrote a blog, in commemoration of Black History Month, "Opportunity to Reset the Button on Race in America." I said:

"In 1964, one thousand out-of-state volunteers participated in a voter registration campaign called "Freedom Summer." Alongside thousands of black people, they participated in a campaign to register eligible black people to vote in Mississippi. Most of the volunteers were young students, from the North; 90 percent of whom were white. Many were Jewish. They sought to implement Dr. King's 1963 'Dream.'

The exemplars of the moral commitment to social justice among such students were Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. Goodman and Schwerner were young white Jewish boys from New York.

Their bodies were found on August 4th, 1964. The national outrage over their murders assisted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To enable readers to better understand what this incident was like in real time, up close and personal, in 1964, I am including an excerpt from my autobiography, currently being written:

News of the missing civil rights was devastating to the Goodman and Schwerner families... When I met Carolyn and Robert Goodman, Andrew's parents, at their home on the Westside of Manhattan, NY, their eyes were blood shot from crying. Their faces were etched in the most indescribable painful grief I had ever seen."

Fifty years ago I was 33 years old, a lawyer for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when I came to visit Andrew Goodman's parents. Last week, in NYC, I visited the Westside apartment where I met the Goodmans for the first time 50 years ago. It was a gathering sponsored by David Goodman and the Andrew Goodman Foundation.

David, now 60, was a teenager when his parents were informed on June 20th, 1964, that their son, Andrew, was missing in Philadelphia, Miss. along with Michael Schwerner and James Cheney.

In recalling that first visit with his parents, it was difficult for me to speak, without choking up, as I shared my personal recollections with those who attended last night's event.

I repeated what I said earlier this month during a speech in San Jose, CA at an event sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League:

"This 50th anniversary of the summer of 1964 occurs when our 21st century nation is CURRENTLY at a moral crossroads. Our choice is either to standby, 'Business as usual,' while states such as NC, PA, TX, SC, FL, GA, OH, MO, and others pass legislation seeking to limit the time place and qualifications and eligibility to register to vote; or to take the baton from that glorious, noble and moral coalition of black and white religious, labor and civil rights leaders who ignited the conscience of America in 1963 and the Summer of 1964 to end racial segregation, and guarantee the right to vote of blacks in Mississippi and Alabama, AND say to our country: NO! NO! NOT THIS TIME! NOT AGAIN!

We must make it clear that We WILL NOT standby, idly and silently, and have the memory of the summer of 1964 desecrated and defiled by 2014 efforts to limit our right to vote. NOT NOW! Not THIS TIME; Or EVER!

More than 500 Negroes and civil rights workers were beaten and 35 churches were burned in Miss in 1964 and less than 5 percent of Mississippi's 500,000 adult blacks were registered to vote. The overriding lesson we learned from the summer of 1964 is that OUR VOTE IS OUR VOICE!

Finally, we should remember that THE historical Centerpiece 'of that magnificent moral and political coalition of the summer of 1964 was the commitment of resources and personnel from the American Jewish Community and the legions white students who traveled to Miss to register African-Americans to vote.'"

Fifty years later we must make a sacred pledge to honor this legacy by recommitting ourselves to those ideals that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner lost their lives on behalf of all of us who are alive today.