Dear Mom and Dad
I have arrived safely in Meridian, Mississippi. This is a wonderful town and the weather is fine. I wish you were here. The people in this city are wonderful and our reception was very good.
All my love,
Andrew Goodman had arrived. A student at Queens College, he had completed training in Ohio for Freedom Summer at the start of the summer, and was ready, along with 900 other activists and college students, to register African-Americans to vote in the steamy South.
Because he was not yet 21, his parents, Robert and Carolyn, had to sign permission papers so he called to volunteer for the program, which was sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality. They were a New York family who talked at the dinner table about subjects such as the Constitution, voting, racism and bullying.
Were they worried about Andrew’s safety in a state seething with racism?
“[They] thought he might get beat up or shoved around. My mother put Band-Aids and iodine in his duffel bag,” said David Goodman, Andrew’s brother.
That same night, while the postcard was traveling north in mailbags along with hundreds of other square, white postcards sent by the volunteers, Goodman got in a car with Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. They drove to visit a church that was used as a Freedom School and had just been torched by the Ku Klux Klan. The young men were stopped on their way home for allegedly speeding, put in jail, and then released.
Two cars full of Ku Klux Klan members — the Neshoba County, Miss., White Knights — had been put on their tail. The Klansmen shot all three young men and savagely beat Chaney, who was black.
Goodman’s postcard made it home, but he never did. The young men were killed and buried in an earthen dam. Their bodies were discovered 44 days later.
“It was a strange experience because, besides the personal loss and tragedy, I had at that age of 17 an awakening, a deep dive into the ironic of America. There’s America the beautiful and America the ugly,” said younger brother David Goodman, who owns a summer home in Tupper Lake, where his brother, Andrew, is now memorialized on a mountaintop. “How could anyone be so mean as to murder someone for an opinion, to murder someone for wanting to vote? That was kind of a secondary shock and it changed my world view.”
Andrew Goodman died trying to make sure people were able to act on their right to vote. “But millions of people didn’t want that to happen. They wanted only certain people to vote. It’s a sacred right. It’s the single most important right for a citizen to exercise,” said David Goodman.
It’s easy to forget the relevance of that right, here in this season of the pre-voting scramble, when the robocalls start, when slick campaign fliers overfill mailboxes, and the nightly news is filled with acidic reports of how many billions are spent on elections by special-interest corporations. Candidates are busy casting shadows against their opponents. Many of the promises of the last election cycle have already deflated and dropped to hard ground. It is disheartening. Disquieting. And some of it, disgusting.
It’s easy to think a vote doesn’t matter. Unless you think of Andrew Goodman, which his family does often. So do more and more people as they see how voting rights today are jeopardized by actions such as shortening the hours to vote in one party’s districts and lengthening them in another party’s; or by voter ID laws.
“It’s complicated, and it’s breaking out like a virus again,” said David Goodman.
It’s easy to think a vote doesn’t matter, until you remember that voting has changed many things in this country, that good does happen, that promises sometime prevail. It’s important to remember that with a vote, you have a voice. You can seek change through your vote.
Fifty years after Adnrew Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered for helping blacks register to vote against the odds of of “state-sanctioned racism,” as David Goodman calls it, he stood atop a mountain in Tupper Lake, where his family spent every summer. It is a mountain he and his brothers, Jonathan and Andy, once climbed over and over again in a rough ascent forged by his family many years ago, during a time when the young boys were more likely to be worried about skinned knees and a cool dive into the lake afterward.
The Goodman family lived in New York City during the school year, and spent their summers in a solid granite house at the head of the lake in Tupper, right next to a rushing falls. It was built in 1933 by masons from the Goodman’s construction company. Each time I pass it I think of Andrew Goodman and how I grew up hearing his story — but not understanding it for a long time.
The mountain is right near their house, although without a bonafide trail, it seemed only the Goodman family members scrambled up its sides.
“I never saw anybody but a Goodman on that trail,” said David Goodman.
Not so this summer. It was officially dedicated Goodman Mountain in August, after months of trail cutting and shaping by local volunteers and crews from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. A bridge was built from the dirt parking area to make the trail accessible.
A kiosk stands at the site, telling the brief history of Andrew Goodman, displaying a replica of his postcard home, and showing photographs of him as a young boy in Tupper and as a young adult. The mountain is now open to the public, and promises an educational adventure into history.
David Goodman was joined on this summer’s hike by many people in the community, along with leaders from the DEC and the governor’s office, who cut a ribbon right near the springs where my family filled jugs with water for years. Howard Kirschenbaum, author and professor who also had been a part of Freedom Summer, spoke to the crowd, telling them how he, too, had been arrested in Mississippi. He and a few fellow volunteers had walked to place a phone call to see if there was any word about the missing Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. Kirschenbaum and crew were arrested, driven outside of town, and met by two other cars and 10 men with guns, he recalled.
They spent a harrowing night in jail and were abused. Kirschenbaum believes the only reason they were not murdered was because after the trio went missing, U.S. Sen. Kenneth Keating called local politicians and let them know he was watching Mississippi.
“Black people had been disappearing and being lynched and no one paid attention,” Kirschenbaum said. “The struggle for freedom always goes on and we have to keep preserving it for every generation.”
You might say Andrew Goodman moved mountains to preserve that freedom. Getting his name on a mountain, rather than just a history book, took years. It began with the mountains of paperwork filed by the late Bill Frenette, town historian and my uncle, to have the mountain officially named Goodman Mountain by the U.S. Geological Society. He told David Goodman he was doing it because it was just the right thing to do.
“He filed about 5,000 pages with about 50 agencies,” David Goodman said. And so it became Goodman Mountain in 2002. But the mountain lacked an accessible trail, or even a sign declaring its presence to anyone other than some hardy locals. As the 50th anniversary of Goodman’s murder loomed, DEC enacted its unit management plan, and volunteers hauled out their tools for some chainsaw action, and some trail work, paperwork, phone calls and persistence. Volunteers included town councilman John Quinn, and retired teacher Jim Frenette, my father, who wanted to see his brother’s wishes fulfilled and Goodman’s name recorded in living history.
On the trail, with my hiking sneakers in the dirt, or just looking through the old-growth forest, it feels like Goodman’s spirit is touchable. On top of the mountain, looking out over lakes and clouds of treetops, on toward other mountains, I can believe in the power of a breeze. I wonder, what did he see 50 years ago when he stood on top, his open, handsome face looking skyward, his dark hair with its distinct side part tousling in the wind? What strength did he draw from the rocks where he rested? What breeze called him South?
His sacrifice, along with those made by others, provoked change. After Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were murdered, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964; the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
“This story belongs to America. This is an American story. It’s your story, too. It’s our story,” said David Goodman, president of the non-partisan Andrew Goodman Foundation, started by their parents in 1966. It is dedicated to “encouraging young adults to be civically engaged and to organize around things that are important to them,” he said. It can be voters’ rights, or it can be recycling: the Foundation teaches them how to organize and take effective action to make a social impact.
Andrew Goodman’s body was left in the earth, silenced and hidden by violent cowards. But his true mark remains aloft, high, on top of a mountain, where in the silence you can hear all he did, all he said, in this spare estate of sky and stone.
The Goodman family donated nearly 600 acres of land near their cottage to the state. On the day of the hike, I found out that Andrew’s grandfather, Charles Goodman, built the concrete shelter at the base of the mountain to protect the springs our family (and many others) used for years to fill jugs with water because our summer cabin had no potable water. And I learned that I have a thirst for sharing Andrew Goodman’s story, because I never want to forget why a vote matters.