THE BLOG
06/20/2014 05:40 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2014

A Pilgrimage, the CORE Murders and Juneteenth

Yesterday marked Juneteenth, the day that should be a national holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Although slavery is the most terrible thing, sadly, not everyone celebrates Juneteenth. Many, including many African Americans, view the holiday solely as a time to host seemingly exclusive African-American-only-themed festivals and events.

If you were to ask many non-blacks what Juneteenth commemorates, you'd be hard-pressed to encounter a right answer. It was on June 19 that Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform the enslaved that they were now free -- two and a half years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

I've always found it a very tragic and sad irony that the same weekend that we celebrate Juneteenth, we also remember and commemorate the loss of life of three heroic Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) members and volunteers: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

It was on June 21, 1964, that the three young civil-rights workers -- a 21-year-old black Mississippian and two white New Yorkers ages 20 and 24 -- were murdered near Philadelphia, Nashoba County, Mississippi.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, we must remember that they were killed. Young people killed. Young Americans killed. Killed for attempting to help register African Americans to vote.

To some, that fact is still chilling and just horrible and inhumane. But, in my experience, that is not so for far too many. Not enough recognize the giving of life for basic human rights that was the civil-rights movement. Sadly, too few Millennials are aware of even basic facts about the bloodshed that gave them the right to walk into a voting booth and cast a ballot.

And frankly, as we commemorate Juneteenth, far too few African Americans, in particular, attest in their actions to the value of human life lost, human life bruised, for that basic right (as evidenced by the low number of eligible African-American voters who actually turn out to vote). I, for one, will never understand why of all Americans, black Americans' voter turnout does not reach 100 percent. But I digress; I am a political scientist, after all. So, maybe it's just my view.

Still, my sense of the continual urgency and commitment to recall tragic civil-rights moments that I was not yet born to experience guides most of my social-justice commitments to this day. One such commitment is my new membership in the inaugural Millennial Advisory Committee of the Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF).

Recently I had the privilege of speaking at length with David Goodman, president of the Andrew Goodman Foundation and brother of the slain CORE youth. In our conversation he recounted with beautiful detail a spring pilgrimage back through the American Deep South with politicians, civic and corporate leaders and nonprofit activists to commemorate Freedom Summer. A caravan, including dozens of members of Congress from both parties, spent three days together in March to revisit key places of civil-rights significance. Sen. Tim Kaine, Rep. Marcia Fudge (head of the Congressional Black Caucus), Rep. John Lewis, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, and many others were there.

Congressman Lewis reenacted the march where he was infamously beaten. Goodman recalled how he has known Congressman Lewis since he was a student and president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Two to three days were spent together on chartered buses traveling through Mississippi. Stops included the Fannie Lou Hamer monument, Brown Chapel in Selma, the site of Emmett Till's murder, and the home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers. I listened with inspiration as Goodman recalled how Sen. Tim Kaine had taken to the stage with his harmonica at Morgan Freeman's Blues club in Clarksdale, and how delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton had described how, at the age of 21 and fresh out of Yale Law School, she had been a litigator with civil-rights legend and Freedom Summer activist Bob Moses.

Goodman shared how, on this pilgrimage, sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington, D.C., Myrlie Evers-Williams stood in the carport were her husband, Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers, was killed, pointing out how his blood never came out of the driveway concrete.

The bridge where Congressman Lewis was beaten was retraced, this time with thousands of people joining in commemoration, including Jesse Jackson Sr. and Martin Luther King III.

On this phone conversation, I was so impressed that there was so much bipartisanship and so much interest by American leadership in absorbing the spirit and the import of the movement and how participants related their experience to what is going on in today's world with regard to social justice.

A spiritually powerful group of blacks, whites, members of the Jewish faith, members of the Christian faith, Republicans, and Democrats showed reverence to lives lost, lives forever changed, and experiences that should never be forgotten and should inform our governance today.

This group was escorted by security: local police, the U.S. Secret Service, Capitol police, and others. The irony was not lost on Goodman and the other civil-rights legends. This time the police were in the front, with flashing lights, not in the back, with lights forcing you to pull over on an unknown, forgotten highway. No, not this time. This civil-rights trip was escorted, and it was highly organized.

Goodman recounted how there were a number of film screenings to put in context the places on the pilgrimage. For example, when they, drove from Jackson, Mississippi, to Selma, Alabama, they screened a segment of the iconic film Eyes on the Prize that highlighted the march from Selma to Montgomery. In nearby Meridian, Mississippi, in route to Selma, Goodman, whom many did not recognize, was invited to share for nearly an hour what had happened to his brother Andy, offer background on his family, and tell a more personal side of the tragic story that we commemorate this weekend as part of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

On this pilgrimage, stories were told of Hollywood and civil-rights legend Harry Belafonte and how he helped fund Freedom Summer and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Meanwhile, stops included a visit with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and appearances by Rep. Bennie Thompson and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor -- all via back roads, in the Delta, where you could go for miles and not see a person; where you could see a house out in the woods somewhere lonely.

Goodman shared how he fancied my title as the Stennis Scholar for Municipal Governance at Mississippi State University, recalling how former U.S. Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi once proudly declared as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that of the 50 or so civil-rights bills on his desk, zero got out of committee. That must have been a proud moment for him.

Goodman shared family details, including visits to Neshoba, the Mississippi county where the CORE volunteers were killed; the 44 days of agony as the three young men were "missing," and the eerie timeline of that summer as it connects to today: They were murdered on June 21, and their bodies were found on Aug. 4, so they were missing for 44 days. The nation's first black president is the 44th president, and and his birthday is Aug. 4.

That same Freedom Summer, a year after King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the King couple visited the Goodman family home in New York, and Dr. King shared how he was skeptical of President Kennedy because as a senator in 1957, he voted against a civil-rights bill. Why? To appease Sen. Stennis. And when the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, King lamented to the Goodmans how it lacked the teeth of earlier versions.

As we celebrate Juneteenth and commemorate the CORE murders in Mississippi and reflect on the Freedom Summer of 50 years ago, may we be catapulted to action! We do need another Freedom Summer. And, as a Mississippi resident, I know, 50 years later, that there is no better place to start than where it commenced. We may not be where we used to be (Juneteenth), but we are not yet near where we ought to be. Freedom Summer, Juneteenth, and the tragic anniversary of murders of people devoted to basic rights -- these events are not just black history. They are moments in American history, sadly relived in too many unfortunate aspects today. We can commemorate together by joining events in our local communities this weekend and throughout the summer. If there are not such events, organize it yourself. Maybe then our steps will be (re)ordered. For lest we forget...