Died For Freedom
Forty years ago on a terrible night, one of the great crimes in our national history took place, in Philadelphia Mississippi. How ironic that a name so embedded in our minds with the concepts of freedom and liberty should now forever be smeared with the blood of martyrs. Let no one doubt that. Whatever they were in life, on that awful night, these three young men suffered a crucifixion, and in doing so will be forever identified in our struggle for freedom.
Died for Freedom. Those words were printed on the little pink and yellow flyers that were handed out one evening at the first memorial service held for them, in Meridian Mississippi in August of that summer. I went around collecting them. In a way that was part of my job. A year earlier I had been hired to be the first staff photographer for the SNCC by James Forman.
James Forman always understood that a great historical struggle was then occurring in the South, and wanted the young people to know it. He wanted it recorded. That is why I went across the church floor picking up the little flyers that had been dropped on the ground. Ten years ago I was teaching a small class in documentary work in Queens, New York City. My course cost $200 and I had students that came to New York City from all over the world – from Japan, and India, Taiwan and China. And to that class I proposed that we make a US Postage stamp honoring these boys that were murdered, murdered so people would have the right to vote.
When I was asked to come back to Mississippi and told that I could speak, I went out in a field behind my house where I live in New York State. It’s a beautiful place, with meadows and a pond, and it was spring and all the trees were in bloom. I began to think of Mississippi and that summer, now forty-two years ago. And I began to cry – and as I stood there, I asked myself why. Why was I crying?
I was crying because I was still alive. And I was crying because those three boys were not. Most of all I was crying for Andy Goodman. All Andy did was get in a car. He got in a car to go looked at a burned down church. I was doing that all the time. Some one would say “go out to so and so” where they burned the church down last night. In the summers of 1962, 1963 and 1964 that wasn’t such a big deal because it happened so often. And the photographs were not interesting at all. A bunch of cinder blocks laying on a ground of ashes, things still smoldering on the ground. Just a mess.
Andy Goodman was a student at Queens college and I am from Queens also. Andy and Mickey were both from New York and both were Jewish. New York Jews is what they were and what I am too. Did you know there is a mountain named for Andy Goodman? They named a mountain for him in the Adirondack Park in New York State not far from Tupper Lake, where he went with his family when he was a child. They named a small peak Mount Goodman.
Maybe a mountain is better than a stamp, but the mountain was named by the government of the state of New York and a stamp is created by the Federal Government, the government of all the people.
When I was a child in Queens I collected postage stamps, United States postage stamps, and put them in a dark blue album. The commemorative stamps are those that remember and honor people and events in history. They cost three cents when I was a child. And one stamp had the portrait of five brothers on it, all wearing sailor hats. Behind them was the ship that they died on, all drowned together on the same ship as they served their country during World War II.
So why not put these three boys on a stamp? They also served their country. No marine, no sailor, no young person in combat showed more courage and bravery than these three. None loved their country more. Died for freedom.
What is freedom? What does is mean anyway? Freedom to shop? Is that what freedom is? Freedom to bomb other countries? Freedom to go into hostile country with new and different ideas? Freedom to vote? If anyone in the history of the United States died for freedom it was these three. And they did it without carrying a bomb or a gun or a knife.
They did not live to be thirty. They did not live to see the 1970s or the 1980’s. They did not live to own nice farms and look out at the fields. They have not seen a springtime since the spring of 1964, which was their last.
You know who they put on a stamp? They put Crazy Horse on a stamp. Crazy Horse was a soldier. When he was young, about the same age as Andy, and Mickey and James, he bravely led a group of his buddies and killed eighty United States soldiers. That was called the Federman Massacre. And he got away with it. And they put Crazy Horse on a stamp.
Then twenty years later Crazy Horse, with some help, managed to destroy an entire US military command, this time killing over 400 American soldiers, including General Custer and his brother and two nephews. And when he was done with the women Crazy Horse disemboweled these naked American soldiers, and did worse things to them which I will not describe. And they put Crazy Horse on a stamp.
So why don’t they make a stamp with a picture of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andy Goodman? And across the bottom they can write these three words. DIED FOR FREEDOM.
Thank you, Danny Lyon