Schwerner’s widow testifies in Killen trial

The DSJV was in Philadelphia, MS today covering the Edgar Ray Killen trial. Here is an update:

Michael Schwerner’s widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, testified today. She spoke about the work that she and her husband had done to organize voter registration and freedom schools in Neshoba county. Here is some of her testimony about their activities in 1964. This is ***in no way*** an official transcript; however, we wanted to make these statements from Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of Michael Schwerner, available to our readers:

I’m an attorney.

I was married to Michael Schwerner. We were married in June of 1962. When we got married, I was 20. He was 22. He had just graduated from college, and I was still in college. I went to the University of the City of New York and he had gone to Cornell.

Mickey was killed in 1964.

We came to MS in January of 1964.

We came to MS to work in the civil rights movement. We were going to work at establishing a community center in Meridian, which we did. It was a place where young people could come, there was a ping pong table and people would come and play ping pong, and talk, and it was a safe place for them to be. We got donations of thousands of books and Mickey and J.E. (Chaney) built bookshelves for the books and we did reading hours for children, the idea was to have a library with books that weren’t available in the black library at the time, and to help children with reading. The reading classes and the children’s story hour really was in a way a precursor to what became a Head Start program for preschool children around the country. I don’t mean that it was directly because of the two of us, but it was, it was a model that I think was used successfully, we were working on voter registration. There were almost no, very few African American voters in the state of Mississippi at the time.

…she begins a listing of what locations they lived in….

…There were constant threats. There were calls, there was a telephone at the community center and there would be calls, really on a daily basis, and a lot of them were either calls in which people used vile language to me if I answered the phone, or called saying that my husband was dead, or I better watch out because he was going to be killed. At one point when we had the house we were living in for a few months, we had a telephone in that house, and we would receive telephone calls all hours of the night, the same kinds of terrible things being said or else a series of hang-up calls.

Actually, J.E. and Mickey did more of the work outside of Meridian than I did. Most of my work was at the community center in Meridian.

(James Chaney) had been doing some work involving civil rights issues before we got to Meridian and we met him shortly after we arrived and he became a friend and someone whom we worked with among other local people too. He lived in Meridian.

We used a station wagon which had been earlier used by a man named George Raymond in Canton, MS and the license number of that car had been circulated among law enforcement people and others around the state. We started using that car around March of 1964 and it was the car we used until the time of the murders.

(Andrew Goodman) I met him very briefly a few days before his murder. When Mickey and J.E. and I and a number of other people who had been involved in voter registration and other civil rights work here in the state went to Oxford, OH for a training program for summer volunteers who were coming down to MS and Andy – Andrew Goodman – was one of those volunteers, and I met him there.

I am familiar with the Mt. Zion church.

He and J.E. both went to the church that day. Spoke at the church. They had been talking for a period of time with members of the church, the church members were deciding whether or not they would make the church available for a school that summer somewhat similar to the kind of program we were doing in Meridian and for voter registration for training of people who wanted to try to register to vote in Neshoba county.

Around the 13th or the 14th of the month of June we went up to Oxford as I mentioned with J.E., and a number of other people from MS also went up at that time. In fact I think we drove up there with one or two other people.

We learned that several of the church members – two or three of them fairly elderly – had been badly beaten and the church was burned that night.

Well, the event happened on the 16th and we learned about it about two days later.

We talked about it. We were both extremely upset about the beatings and the burning of the church. We were very worried about the church members, both the people who had been beaten and the risk to any of the other people and I know J.E. was very upset too and they decided that they needed to go back to MS. I’m sorry, it’s a little bit emotional. I’m sorry. They decided to go back to MS and go to the Mt Zion church and meet with church members.

He (Mickey) felt a terrible sense of responsibility about what had happened to the church members. He was extremely distressed.

I think he and J.E. both felt that they had a responsibility to the people who had put themselves at risk and that’s why they decided they had to go back and see those people. You don’t abandon people who you’ve put at risk.

When we were first talking about it the original thought was that I would go back with them. And I was asked to stay in Oxford, OH to continue helping with the training and so the plan was that I would stay in Ohio for another week and then I would get a ride back to Meridian with other people who were driving down.

Around 3 or 4 in the morning of June 20th, Mickey got up and got dressed, he kissed me goodbye and he left. In the blue station wagon.

That’s the very last time I saw him.

I think he called me briefly Saturday evening to say that they had arrived in Meridian and that they were planning to go up to Philadelphia the next day.

During the night of June 21st or early Monday morning the 22nd I was awakened by knocking on the door of the room I was staying, we were staying in dormitories at the college in Ohio. I was asked to come on down to the office and there was a phone call for me and I learned that Mickey and J.E. and Andy had never returned to Meridian from their trip to Philadelphia.

Of course I was concerned. There had been attempts made all that late afternoon and evening of the 21st to try to find out what had happed to them. Calls to the jails, calls to hospitals…nobody acknowledged having seen them. That continued through the night and into the next day.

I stayed in Ohio for a couple of days trying to be in touch with anyone I could think of to try to find out what had happened to them. And then decided that I couldn’t stay there, I had to come back to MS and then there was concern about my coming back by myself because I made it very clear I intended to come to Philadelphia. And it was decided that it was too dangerous for me and for him, for me to travel with one of the African American workers, and so it was decided that Bob Zellner, who was a white civil rights worker from AL originally, would travel with me. So we were driven from the college to the airport in Cincinnati to get a flight, we were supposed to fly, we couldn’t get a flight all the way through to Meridian that day, and so we were to fly to Jackson and then on to Meridian the next morning.

I don’t remember the date but I can tell you I remember exactly when it was. It was the day that the burned station wagon was found in the Bogue Chitto area.

I was at the airport in Cincinnati and Bob Zellner and I bumped into Fannie Lou Hamer who had also been at the college for a few days and was unknown to us until we bumped into her at the airport, was traveling back to MS on another flight, and we were standing and talking when we heard that the car had been burned.

I think it really hit me for the first time that they were dead. That there was really no realistic possibility that they were still alive and Fannie Lou and I, Ms. Hamer, both started to cry. She led me over to a bench and she just wrapped her arms around me and the two of us had our faces together and both of us had, our tears were mingling with each other’s.

We stopped in Atlanta that night and stayed overnight with some friends of Bob Zellner’s and I have a recollection of sitting at the dinner table with them that night. And they were having a conversation and I was just sitting there, and I had this very strange feeling. I described it the other day when I was trying to talk about it, as what I think…people talk about as being ‘disassociated’. I realized I was sitting there and there was this discussion going on around me, people were engaging in the normal conduct of picking up a glass of water and drinking it or eating their food or talking to each other, and I was there and I wasn’t there, and I was thinking, ‘this is just very strange’.

We flew into Meridian and we stayed, there were a number of other people staying there also, at Young’s Hotel. And some of the black ministers in Meridian organized themselves to guard the hotel.

I saw Mrs. Chaney, J.E.’s mother, in Meridian. And then I, Bob and I, came up to Philadelphia, I think the day after we got to Meridian.

That is what we were doing and we were trying to find out was has happened. And I wanted to see the burned out car. I was absolutely insistent that I wanted to see the car.

It was in a garage. It was up on blocks I think because the tires had been completely burned off it. The outside, the paint was blistered and peeled off, the interior was burned out.

I stayed in MS for I think about, I’m not sure exactly, ten days, two weeks. The day, I think the day after we went to Philadelphia, Bob and I read in the newspaper that Paul Johnson, the governor of the state, was going to be holding a meeting and a reception with George Wallace… Jackson, and so we decided to go to Jackson and talk to Governor Johnson. And they were standing, the two governors, were standing outside, on the steps of, I think it was the State House building. There were a lot of MS state patrolmen lining the steps but there were also a lot of people walking up the steps and greeting the governors and shaking hands with them and talking to them, and there were a lot of reporters around and so we walked up the steps. And I reached out, well just before we got to the top of the steps, I heard a reporter ask Governor Johnson “what about these missing men?” and Governor Johnson turned to George Wallace and chuckled and said……(interrupted by an objection, which was sustained).

I went back to NY for a few days, I saw my family for a few days, I saw Mickey’s family, I then went to Washington, DC.

I think I was called by Mickey’s brother, who had heard it first, and called me. It was terrible.

This is a photograph of Mickey Schwerner, it was taken about April of 1964 in Meridian.


….end of prosecution questions…
Killen’s lawyers then asked a few questions which essentially established that Rita Schwerner Bender did not know whether or not the FBI had followed her on her return trip to Meridian (after the disappearance of her husband, Goodman, and Chaney) but that the FBI did speak with her within the first several days of the disappearance. Killen’s lawyer also asked if she knew Edgar Ray Killen previous to this case. She did not. There was no re-direct.

Edgar Ray Killen complained of not feeling well shortly after the second witness of the day took the stand, and he left the courthouse on a stretcher. He was taken to the hospital for high blood pressure (measured over 200). The court was in recess for the rest of the day. Court is expected to resume at 8:30 central time tomorrow.