Who Pelham can honor in the wake of George Floyd

Since George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, many Pelham residents have tried hard to express the town’s opposition to systemic racism and police misconduct. An inspiring, genuine way for Pelham to make a stand is to memorialize a true, Pelham-raised civil rights hero: The activist, martyr, and posthumous winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Michael Henry Schwerner. 

While Schwerner’s name is fairly recognizable to Pelham residents, his story is rarely told in full.

Michael “Mickey” Schwerner graduated from PMHS in the class of 1957. Photo via Wikicommons.

He was raised in Pelham and attended Pelham Memorial High School in the 1950s; his mother was a teacher at New Rochelle High School, and his eventual wife was raised in Mount Vernon. After attending Cornell University, he led a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) group in downtown Manhattan, but eventually left his home state with his wife to protest racial segregation at another CORE branch in Mississippi. Tracked by racially-motivated local government agents and members of the Ku Klux Klan at every moment, Schwerner and his wife Rita were forced to stay alert for months on end to avoid being killed for their efforts. Despite the target on his back, Schwerner did not stop fighting throughout the 60s. Until his final sacrifice in 1964, he led the CORE team based in Meridian, Mississippi, where he organized protests, registered black Americans to vote in the Freedom Summer, and even went door-to-door to personally convince working class whites to oppose racial inequality. 

Schwerner, alongside fellow activists Andrew Goodman and James Earl Chaney, was reported missing following their deaths on June 21, 1964. Credit: FBI

While Michael Schwerner’s efforts did not go unnoticed when he was living, his murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan made him a nationwide symbol for civil rights. On June 21, 1964, Schwerner, alongside other civil rights activists James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, was shot and killed by KKK members after being released from jail due to an alleged “traffic violation”. The incident was given nationwide attention, as it involved two white civil rights workers, Goodman and Schwerner, being murdered alongside Chaney, a black civil rights worker. The publicity behind this act of violence and its crossing of racial boundaries led to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and helped to unify the nation in opposition to systemic racism in the South. So, too, can Michael Schwerner’s sacrifice act as a unifying gesture against racism for Pelham in 2020. 

Still, Schwerner’s sacrifice in the Civil Rights Movement was not alone. Every February, PMHS classrooms celebrate black activists like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. However, in our repetitive “Civil Rights Unit” curriculum, there are many black civil rights figures that are often unfairly neglected; Ella Baker, Asa Philip Randolph, Howard Thurman, and many more come to mind. Even while celebrating the honorable sacrifice of Mr. Schwerner, it is vital to amplify black voices in the fight for equality as well.

Pelham has made efforts to memorialize Michael Schwerner in the past, but they have never been in a manner as fully realized as he deserves. In 2008, part of Harmon Ave was renamed “Michael Schwerner Way” in his honor. Additionally, there is a bust of Mr. Schwerner tucked away in a trophy case in Alumni Hall at PMHS, his alma mater; disappointingly, this statuette often goes unnoticed. These gestures, while well-intentioned, don’t serve to memorialize Mr. Schwerner enough in the Pelham community, especially now that the long overdue conversation of race in America is being brought up yet again in 2020. 

The greatest recognition of Schwerner’s efforts did not come from Pelham at all; instead, it came from President Barack Obama in 2014, when Schwerner was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Activism, alongside James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Schwerner is just one of just 45 people to receive this award, a list which includes household names like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Jesse Jackson, and Andrew Young, among others. Schwerner’s sacrifice has been recognized more on a national level than a local one; to memorialize his sacrifice and truly show what Pelham residents are capable of in the fight for equality, this should change. 

The inscription above the stage of the PMHS auditorium reads “Honor Here the Ideals for Which They Fought”. Michael Schwerner fought for his ideals, and paid the ultimate price for his actions. He is an example of Pelham’s finest, and needs a more formal and public recognition in the community.