“WE’RE GOING TO Mississippi.”
Mickey Schwerner’s words were blunt and succinct. He raked his right hand along his scruffy beard as he stared boldly into the eyes of David Dunning, his friend since their days studying social work at Cornell, and fellow compatriot in the New York civil rights movement. David returned Mickey’s gaze, his handsome, mocha-colored face absent of expression. He was unsure of how to respond to his friend, to this latest in a long line of fearless—if calculated—efforts.
But Bev, never one to hold her tongue, jumped in immediately. “Who is ‘we’?”
“Rita and me,” Mickey responded, now holding his wife’s hand as it rested atop the dingy table situated in the northwest corner of Shelly’s Diner. They exchanged a quick glance and then, as if to confirm their resoluteness, turned back to their friends in unison.
Bev pulled a Kent cigarette from her purse, lit it, and took a long draw before asking, “Are you sure?”
Bev hadn’t known Mickey and Rita as long as David had, but she had spent the past few years with them, attending meetings and protests to further the cause of low-income, at-risk Negroes in New York. She knew they were wholly committed to the cause, as was she. She’d heard about Mickey successfully integrating Cornell’s chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity as an undergrad, and she was there when he and Rita, a schoolteacher, worked to integrate the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Maryland. Most recently, Bev had been present to watch the Schwerners in action as they led Manhattan’s Lower East Side branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, otherwise known as CORE.
Bev also knew that Mickey had been transfixed by the Birmingham riots just a year prior, as the entire nation sat glued to television sets and newspaper articles that provided eyewitness accounts of the mayhem that ensued when Negro residents took to the streets following a series of bombings targeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family.
On May 10, 1963, King had been on hand for the Birmingham Truce Agreement, a proposed compromise among city representatives and local business leaders that called for partial desegregation of public facilities, including retail store fitting rooms and water fountains, as well as economic advancement opportunities for Negro workers. There was also to be a Committee on Racial Problems and Employment formed as a result of the agreement.
But, in typical supremacist fashion, Bull Connor, Birmingham’s notorious commissioner of public safety, denounced the so-called truce and threatened to impede its enforcement. Meanwhile, as King and other Negro leaders basked in their apparent victory, KKK leaders from across the South were coordinating a series of attacks, with some believed to have involved officers of the Birmingham Police Department directly.
Neither of the bombs detonated on May 11—one outside of King’s brother’s home and another at the Gaston Motel, where King had been staying—were successful in reaching their intended target, or anyone else, for that matter. But that did little to douse the flames of fury that had been rising within the community of oppressed and depressed Negroes for generations.
When the fire finally burst forth, angry Negroes took to the streets of Birmingham, determined to seek their own justice. Some, like the three men who slashed the torso of Officer J. N. Spivey, worked in direct opposition to King’s nonviolent credo. It was almost fitting, though, as Birmingham’s own response was swift, strong, and equally violent, and included state troopers who beat back protestors while armed with machine guns.
These scenes of unrest were, ultimately, what fertilized the seed of social discontent already taking root in Mickey’s heart, feeding it until it became this monster of a thing that demanded more, more, more until finally, Mickey was willing to put his life on the line for the freedom of others.
Bev knew this, but she was still taken aback by this latest declaration. Mississippi? The hotbed—both literally and figuratively—of the nation’s cruelest bigotry? Where tempers of the racist powers that be rose quicker than sweltering August temperatures? That Mississippi?
And what about Rita? she wondered. Sure, there were women who had been involved in the movement, but to voluntarily place his wife of just under two years on the front lines of the civil rights struggle—had Mickey lost his mind?
“Mississippi is where we need to be,” Mickey said. “The work we’re doing here in New York is great, but in the Deep South, we’re not talking about whether Negroes can buy a home in a certain part of town. We’re talking about basic human rights.” He paused for a beat, then lowered his voice for effect. “Did you know that in Mississippi, only six percent of the eligible Negro population is registered to vote? Those people have been stripped of their ability to control their futures and the future of their family.”
Mickey then turned to Bev, as if somehow surmising her thoughts and answering them directly. His brown eyes sparkled with excitement as he spoke. “Rita and I have discussed this extensively,” he said, gripping her hand even tighter now. “We are not at all naive to the grave danger, but we also refuse to sit idle while innocent people are subjected to such cruelty. We just can’t. Rita and I are taking this step together.”
Bev took another draw of her cigarette, feeling a sense of pride and admiration welling within her, displacing the worry and concern that had tried to take root. Bev had spent her entire career—her entire life, really—in a painstaking effort to level the playing field for all people, regardless of race or gender. And here she was, sitting across from two people who, in bearing the same white skin as she, may not have had a direct, personal link to the civil rights movement, but who were as passionate and steadfast as if their own ancestors had once been enslaved.
Certainly, with Mickey and Rita having only been married for a couple of years, it seemed more appropriate for them to be honeymooning in some tropical locale than venturing off into the dark underbelly of American racism. But as Mickey emphasized the word “together,” Bev understood that this move was, in fact, a symbol of their love and dedication to their marriage vows and to each other, to supporting that which most compelled them. She could only hope that she would one day have a husband whose innermost desires aligned so closely with her own.
While David remained silent, poking solemnly at his chicken salad, Bev pressed on. “So what will you be doing, exactly?”
“Well,” said Rita, “CORE is establishing a community center in Meridian, Mississippi, that will provide many of the basic services that the state and local authorities refuse to provide for Negroes. We’ll be able to help the adults understand their rights as citizens, while also teaching the children subjects that they’d never have access to in public schools.
“It’s amazing, really, this idea that we’ll be able to have a direct impact on these people, not just right now, but for generations to come,” she added, her voice soft and demure but just as firm as her husband’s. “Access to quality education has the ability to change the course of a person’s life more completely and effectively than any other variable.”
Bev smiled as she reached across the table with both arms, placing her hands on top of the couple’s. “Well, I wish you all the best of luck and safe travels. The movement needs boldly courageous people, and it may very well take people like you, willing to leave the comfort of the North, to finally effect real change.” Then, speaking directly to Rita, she added, “I would do the same.”
Rita smiled back at Bev, her petite face overwhelmed by an expression as genuine as the burning hatred they would soon encounter. “Thank you, Bev. That means a lot. We leave on the fifteenth, but I promise to stay in touch.”
As a busboy arrived to clear the dishes from the table, Bev, Mickey, and Rita stood to pull on their overcoats and scarves, bracing themselves for the bitter January cold.
Finally, David, still seated, broke his silence. “Hey, Mickey. What about Johnson?” he asked, referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had recently taken office following the assassination of JFK in November.
“What about him?”
“You know, the civil rights legislation that Kennedy proposed last summer. After that mess in Birmingham, Johnson’s promising to push it through Congress.” David stood from the rickety table and shoved his hands into his coat pockets while he waited for Mickey’s response.
“That’s great, man. We want that to happen,” Mickey said, not deterred. “But in the meantime, we are the hands and feet of the movement. We must demand change now. Not when or if Johnson gets around to passing some bill.”
“But what if you don’t make it back?” Silence washed over the friends as all eyes turned toward Mickey. And though David’s question wasn’t enough to completely deflate the lifting excitement that Mickey still registered on his face, it accurately addressed the concern that, until that point, had gone unuttered.
“Then I don’t make it back,” Mickey said, stoic as ever. “I have a very real, emotional need to offer my services in the South, and I plan on working until the end of my life toward a just, equal society. If the end comes sooner than later, so be it.”
The city streets were still littered with remnants of the prior day’s New Year’s celebrations, and as they stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of Shelly’s, Bev and David found themselves sidestepping plastic kazoos and party hats emblazoned with “1964.”
“You wanna take a cab?” David asked, interrupting Bev’s thoughts, the same thoughts she’d had in the diner, thoughts that had been swimming around in her head ever since Mickey first made public his decision to journey below the Mason-Dixon Line.
“No, I think I’d rather walk.”
Bev’s house at 910 West End Avenue wasn’t far from Shelly’s—hence Bev’s infatuation with the restaurant’s chicken soup with egg noodles—but she wasn’t quite ready to go home yet. She had some things she needed to discuss with David, and a taxi ride would have landed her at her doorstep in less than five minutes.
Professionally, Bev was adept at the art of effective communication. She had recently been promoted at Hillside Hospital, from a staff social worker to a supervisor managing a team of more than ten varying personalities and dispositions. And she was often called on to put out various fires in the field. Just a few weeks prior, she received a call from an Episcopalian priest who had volunteered to sponsor a tutoring program for at-risk children. Unfortunately, when he learned that those at-risk children were primarily Puerto Rican and Negro, and that they would have to actually come to his church to be tutored, he wasn’t so sold on the program. “Those people,” he’d explained to Bev, “can’t be trusted. They come from families and homes where sin and violence is commonplace.”
And Bev, in considering the most practical, reasonable approach to combat the priest’s argument, appealed to his religious sensibilities. “Father,” she’d said, “what happened to faith, hope, and charity?”
His reply was equally practical. “They are the cornerstone of what we do here, but I have a faithful congregation I must consider, and I just can’t risk bringing those children here.”
“So have you been to their homes and actually met their families to see if your presumptions about their home lives are actually valid?” Bev asked.
The priest hemmed and hawed a bit before answering. “To be honest, Miss Luther, I really haven’t had the time. I’ve been busy with administrative duties, and I trust my staff to advise me correctly when it comes to matters such as these.”
“I see,” said Bev, in the most calculated way. “Well, Father, in that case, it’s a shame that the tutoring must stop.”
“It is quite unfortunate—but very realistic—to consider that, without the educational advantage your tutoring program could provide, these children may be forced to resort to illegal methods of survival as they navigate through life. Methods that could potentially impact this very neighborhood where your church now sits.”
The priest changed his mind about shuttering the program, and even Bev’s boss was surprised by the rapid turnaround. But while talking was one of the few things that Bev knew she did well, here, with David, she had to choose her words carefully.
“Do you think Mickey’s making a mistake?” she asked, looking up into David’s face. With Bev standing at just five feet two, and David towering almost a full foot above her, Bev had to strain to make out any reaction on his face as he continued to silently place one foot in front of the other.
“Why do you ask that?” he said, slowing his pace just slightly.
“I don’t know. At Shelly’s, it just seemed like, like . . . like you weren’t excited for them.”
“Excited for them? What do you mean excited? Are you excited for them?” David stopped walking and turned to face Bev directly, his long arms folded across his chest.
“Actually, I am, yes,” Bev replied. “I can really see the great potential in the work they’re going to do. Don’t you?”
Bev was surprised when she saw a smile spreading across David’s handsome face, even more so when she heard him laughing. “What’s so funny?” she asked, visibly irritated.
“You know, it’s really not funny,” said David, now serious. “Y’all just don’t have a clue.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Give me a break, Bev. I grew up in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, in a tiny town called Centreville. You know that.”
“Yes, I do know that. But I don’t understand what that has to do with Mickey and Rita. I would think you’d be happy that they would care enough about what’s happening in your home state, so close to where you grew up, to try and make a difference.”
“That’s just the thing, Bev. I’ve lived that life. Seen it with my own two eyes. Those good ol’ boys down there ain’t playing games. They don’t care nothin’ about Martin Luther King, so you know they ain’t gon’ care about two uppity nigger lovers from New York.”
“But Mickey said they’ve considered the danger—”
“How can they consider the danger when they don’t even know what they don’t know?” David’s face was dark now, and the corners of his eyes were welling with tears.
“Have you ever seen a man hanging from a tree?” he said. “I’m not talking about a newspaper photo, or some TV news program. I’m talking about driving to the grocery store to pick up some flour and a couple of potatoes and passing right by a man dangling from an oak tree, no doubt strung up for some trivial offense like not stepping off the sidewalk to make way for a five-year-old white girl.”
Bev didn’t know how to respond. She’d heard David speak of his past before, but never with so much intensity. She fumbled in her purse for a cigarette while he kept talking.
“I’ve seen gangs of a dozen white men beat a Negro boy in the middle of town in broad daylight, with folks walking right by and not saying a word. And if you think you’re just gon’ call the police, forget about it. Half the time, they’re the ones organizing the attacks.”
“But, David,” Bev started, “we know the danger is very real. Even if Mickey hasn’t seen the danger for himself, I’m sure his imagination has provided him with plenty of material. So what then? Is he supposed to ignore his call to fight? And what about the people he would be turning his back on? What about them?”
Bev and David finished the walk to Bev’s house in silence, twin clouds of smoke gathering and then disappearing in front of their faces as they breathed in the twenty-degree air.
Once at her stoop, Bev took a hard look at this man who had become her best friend, with whom she’d shared so much of her life. She completely understood his position regarding Mickey and Rita’s decision, and it pained her to see that he himself was torn. How do you choose between justice and personal safety? Life and freedom for others or that for yourself?
“I’m sorry if I upset you,” said Bev.
“When my dad packed up our family to move to New York, my brothers were too young to understand the significance of those thousand miles he was placing between us and our past,” David responded. “So now, they don’t understand why Dad doesn’t want to go to sit-ins or protests or watch news updates on the movement. But not me. I understood then, and I really understand now.”
Bev listened intently while David spoke, though she still wasn’t completely convinced by his point of view. Granted, she had never seen the things he had seen, and neither had Mickey or Rita. But it also made sense to her that their friends wanted to take their involvement to the next level, to do the work that mattered in the place where it mattered most. From that perspective, then, the inherent risks, grave as they were, seemed more like a technical nuisance than a logical deterrent.
“So you would never consider going?” Bev asked, leaning her small frame against her front door.
David paused before answering. “When you are a Negro man in Mississippi, there is a large part of your existence that is dedicated to simply surviving. Planning for a future, sending your kids to college, those things aren’t even a factor when all of your energies must be focused on waking up to see tomorrow.”
He cleared his throat, then added, “My father changed that for our family. He sacrificed so no other Dunning man would have to fear for his life if he was stranded without gas on a country road after dark. He ensured that the women in our family could be more than cooks and maids. To be honest, I just can’t see myself voluntarily returning to a place that has meant nothing but death and darkness for my family.”
Bev felt as if the weight of David’s words were crushing her heart. “Wow, David,” she said. “I didn’t know you felt that way. There’s not really much I can say to that.” She shifted from one foot to the other. “But what about Mickey and Rita? They haven’t shared your experiences, so why are you so against them helping the people who are in the same position you were years ago, but who lack the resources or will to simply pack up and move north?”
David’s voice grew soft, so soft that Bev could hardly hear him above the sound of the train in the distance. “I understand Mickey and Rita’s motives; really I do,” he said. “But I’m scared for them. To southerners, being so cursed to have black skin is bad enough. But to be blessed with white skin and make the choice to join forces with the Negroes, thus threatening the only way of life those evil segregationists have ever known? The way of life they’ve worked so hard to maintain? That is completely reprehensible—far worse than the poor soul who was born Negro through no cause of his own.
“So as far as Mickey and Rita are concerned,” David continued, “I can’t lie. I’m scared, and I don’t know if I’ll see my friends alive again.”
It was at that moment that Bev decided against divulging the secret desire that had been growing in her own heart from the moment they stepped out of Shelly’s—that she, too, wanted to head south.