Image: Rita Schwerner Bender
Rogelio Solis  /  AP
Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of slain civil rights worker Michael Schwerner, speaks a news conference following the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers including her late husband.
updated 6/22/2005 10:45:40 PM ET 2005-06-23T02:45:40

With every eye fixed on her, Rita Schwerner Bender kept her composure, leaning forward in the witness chair and taking the Mississippi courtroom back to a time when black people, and any who sympathized with them, lived under a terror threat.

She told of moving with her husband, Michael Schwerner, to operate a "freedom school" for blacks in the fiercely segregated Mississippi of 1964. Back then, she had described whispered threats on the home phone, including the voice that said, "The Jew-boy is dead."

But on this day the courtroom was so quiet you could hear spectators breathe when she recounted the moment she knew they were gone forever — when their blue station wagon was found, burned and abandoned.

"I think it hit me for the first time that they were dead, that there was really no realistic possibility that they were alive," she said.

Bender broke her customary silence about the 1964 murders in the hope her testimony could help convict an 80-year-old Ku Klux Klansman in their deaths.

And it did — 41 years to the day after Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were kidnapped and killed under the cover of night. On Tuesday, Edgar Ray Killen was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter. He could have been convicted of murder.

And again, Bender remained composed despite deep emotions as she spoke outside the courthouse afterward.

"I hope that this conviction helps to shed some light on what happened in this state," the petite, white-haired widow said. "Yet, there is something else that needs to be said.

People still ‘choose to not see the truth’
"The fact that some members of that jury could have sat through that testimony, and could not bring themselves to acknowledge that these were murders, committed with malice, indicates that there are still people, unfortunately, among you who choose to look aside and choose to not see the truth.

"And that means that there's still a lot more yet to be done."

The young New Yorkers already had been through more than most married couples witness together in a lifetime.

Michael Schwerner, known as Mickey, had founded a New York chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality in April 1963, a year when dogs and fire hoses were turned on those who dared to demonstrate. By Independence Day, the Schwerners would be arrested at a protest in Baltimore, just two months before the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed by the Klan and four little black girls gave face to the movement.

Michael Schwerner and his schoolteacher wife were soon assigned to one of the deadliest battlegrounds — Mississippi.

Determination outweighed fear as Rita traveled south with her husband.

"It was a time of tremendous excitement," she recalled in an interview while the jury deliberated. "There was a belief that if enough people committed themselves a change would come."

The idealists quickly confronted oppression that for many was unfathomable. Blacks lived in shacks. They were uneducated. They feared for their lives for simply looking a white person in the eye.

Making a difference
The Schwerners' freedom school taught black children who were not welcome in the public schools. They felt they were making a difference, but more work was to be done.

Now project directors for CORE, they enlisted to conduct training in Ohio for hundreds of volunteers who would descend on the South for Freedom Summer 1964 — a climactic episode of the movement with the goal of forcing equal rights.

After the training, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were among the first wave to go back to Mississippi. CORE volunteers were to check in at specific times so their movements could be tracked. They didn't.

Rita Schwerner walked to a blackboard in one of the CORE training rooms and scribbled their names and a single word: MISSING.

When the FBI descended on Philadelphia to investigate the disappearances, Rita Schwerner was there too.

"Mrs. Schwerner went down to Mississippi and confronted J. Edgar Hoover on the street. She said, 'I don't want you just to show that you're here. I want you to find my husband,'" said Taylor Branch, author of a trilogy of books chronicling the civil rights movement.

The FBI did find the three. They were ambushed on a rural Neshoba County road. Klan members beat and shot them. Their bodies were buried in an earthen dam.

Nineteen men would be indicted in 1967 on federal charges of violating the victims' civil rights. Seven were tried and convicted and served six years or less in prison. Killen's case ended in a hung jury.

Continuing her pursuit
As a 22-year-old widow, far from home, Rita Schwerner could easily have left the South.

Instead, she went to work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., challenged the seating of an all-white Mississippi delegation. Delegates used borrowed passes to march on the convention floor and were hauled away by guards, galvanizing Mississippi's black population.

Rita Schwerner testified before the credentials committee with Freedom Democratic Party members standing in silent tribute.

"She's very strong and sensitive," said Ed King, a Freedom Party delegate.

At Killen's trial, Rita Schwerner Bender admonished reporters to pursue the real story, not a romanticized version. She said the reason a national spotlight was shone on the case was that two of the victims were white, her husband and Goodman. Chaney was black.

Still a divided country
"As a country, we still have a long way to go in recognizing that race is an important factor. It affects justice, it affects education, it affects housing and all those other things that make life worth living," she said after Tuesday's verdict.

Chaney's brother, Ben, spoke at the same microphone, agreeing and adding: "People in Mississippi can socialize at night, but when the sun comes up we're separated."

"I didn't know whether to weep or to dance," Goodman's 89-year-old mother, Carolyn, said of the verdicts. "I'm just happy that it's over."

These days, Bender, who remarried and has a 32-year-old son, doesn't like to dwell on her role in the civil rights movement.

"You have to ask her about it," said Celeste McDonell, an attorney-colleague at the Seattle law firm where Bender specializes in providing indigent defendants access to legal assistance.

Her emotions about those days decades ago are her own, Bender said. While declining to delve deeper into the past, she said, the civil rights movement was about much more than the young, white college students who flooded the South in 1964.

But a scene outside the trial was telling.

When the Rev. Thomas E. Gilmore, a Birmingham, Ala., pastor who had worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., saw Bender, she smiled and held out a hand, and he responded with an embrace.

"I didn't know what to say in her presence," Gilmore later said. "Her dedication to the cause...I think there's something unique about those associated with martyrs."

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