Civil rights hero gets a fitting tribute
Andrew Goodman was one of hundreds of students who traveled to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 with the goal of registering as many blacks as possible to vote.
He was young — just 20 — and had always been interested in social causes. At the age of 15, he had traveled to West Virginia to learn more about coal miners and their poor quality of life.
So when he set off for the deep South, “I thought it was just another one of his trips,” his younger brother, David Goodman, told me. “I didn’t realize the significance of it.”
On his first day in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, along with two other civil rights activists, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Their deaths, which occurred 50 years ago, caused national outrage, launched a federal investigation and helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A native of New York City, Goodman had ties to upstate New York: He spent his summers in the Adirondack Mountains at a seasonal family home known as Shelter Cove Camp.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation honored Goodman’s memory by dedicating a hiking trail south of Tupper Lake in his honor. The 1.75-mile trail ascends Goodman Mountain, a 2,176-foot peak named for the slain civil rights activist in 2002. The trailhead features a brand-new informational kiosk on Goodman’s all-too-short life.
David Goodman, now 67, owns a house about a mile from the base of Goodman Mountain.
He said that his brother was one of hundreds of idealistic young adults who volunteered as part of Freedom Summer — the summer-long campaign, organized by a coalition of civil rights organizations, to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, where they were routinely denied that right.
“They were ordinary kids who did something extraordinary,” he said.
This is very true, and helps explain why the civil rights era still strikes a chord today, at least for me.
The movement wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of the many men, women and children who put their lives on the line.
When I lived in Birmingham, Alabama, I had the opportunity to interview some of these “foot soldiers,” as they’re often called, and I was struck by both their ordinariness and their heroism. They were regular people who simply wanted to live full and meaningful lives, and the cost of their activism was sometimes quite high. Foot soldiers risked having their houses and churches bombed, being beaten and even killed by Klansmen and confronted by fire hoses and police dogs for daring to march through the streets.
And yet this didn’t deter the Goodmans, Chaneys and Schwerners of the world.
Schwerner grew up in Westchester County, but he also had a local connection: He vacationed on Great Sacandaga Lake in the 1960s. According to a 1966 article in the Gloversville Leader Herald, he “worked as a farm hand on the farm of Fred Hess in the town of Johnstown in the summers of 1960 and 1961.”
While Schwerner and Goodman were both Jewish northerners, Chaney was black and a native of Mississippi.
The three were arrested near Philadelphia, Mississippi, after investigating the bombing of a church that had been the site of a Freedom School — an alternative school established by civil rights activists for black Mississippians. They were taken to a county jail on an alleged traffic violation and released several hours later. Six weeks later, their bodies were found under a nearby dam.
Bill Frenette, the Tupper Lake historian who led the campaign to name the mountain for Goodman, died in 2007. In a 2004 story that aired on North Country Public Radio, he discussed Goodman’s final visit to Tupper Lake and his desire to volunteer in the South.
“He knew that he was born into wealth, and he felt compelled to go down there and help these people register so that they would have a say,” Frenette told reporter Brian Mann. He recalled his surprise and dismay at the news that Andrew had disappeared. “It was a shock to everyone in the community that knew the family,” he said. “It was big news here in our local papers, for one thing. Oh yes. There are many people, you know, from the people who did the laundry to the electrician that knew the Goodmans.”
Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner paid the ultimate price for their activism, but they did not die in vain.
John Quinn, a Tupper Lake councilman who pushed for the creation of the Goodman Mountain trail, said he hopes the trail and mountain keep Goodman’s legacy alive.
“This may be a dark part of our past, but there are real heroes in this,” he said.
Perhaps someday soon I’ll have the chance to climb Goodman Mountain and reflect on Andrew Goodman’s life. I don’t use the word hero too often, but in this case I think it applies.