06/22/2010 01:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mississippi Courage: 3 Civil Rights Workers Remembered

Do the names James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner mean anything to you?

If they don't, they should.

The three young men were civil rights workers who volunteered to help with black voter registration in Mississippi during what became known as "Freedom Summer" in 1964.

Chaney was black and a native of Mississippi. Goodman and Schwerner were both from New York, and both Jewish.

Forty-six years ago this week, they were brutally murdered by the KKK in Philadephia, Mississippi.

Their deaths galvanized the Civil Rights Movement, helped bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and have been the subject of several films, most notably Mississippi Burning. It took over 40 years for one of the men responsible for their murders, Edgar Ray Killen, to be brought to trial and convicted of manslaughter. (Yes, manslaughter.) Killen is currently serving three consecutive terms of 20 years in prison. He turned 85 this year.

Neither Chaney, Goodman or Schwerner ever made it to their 25th birthday.

I think this tragic and tragically American story has three important lessons to teach us:

1) You're never too young to live and act with courage. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner proved that courage isn't the byproduct of age and maturity. It's the product of identifying what you think is wrong in the world and doing your best to fix it--even if it's a problem far removed from your own concerns. (Goodman and Schwerner weren't black, nor were they from the South. They simply saw an injustice and wanted to rectify it.)

2) You're never too old to remain a coward. Killen has lived to be roughly sixty years older than the three young men he helped murder. By all accounts, he remains a racist, unrepentant segregationist. Living long is no guarantee that you'll grow wise, or learn to live with courage.

3) You don't have to be famous to be great. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner only garnered national attention after their brutal deaths. But while they were alive, they were doing great work, work that would ultimately change the course of history. After all, would Barack Obama's presidential victory have been possible without courageous freedom fighters like Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner? I don't think so. And I suspect neither does Obama.

So this week, as we muster the "courage" to get through our daily grind, let's take a moment to remember three young men who truly embody what real courage is all about. They didn't fight in the U.S. Armed Forces. But nonetheless, they were soldiers. Soldiers who risked their lives--and lost their lives--because they had the courage to fight for what they believed in and leave this world a little better than they found it.

Actually, a lot better.