Today, President Obama is presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the county's highest civilian honor, to a number of people, like economist Robert Solow, actress Meryl Streep, musician Stevie Wonder, choreographer Alvin Ailey (in a posthumous honor) and composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But three people are not celebrities, notable scientists or politicians—they were three young men who were murdered while registering black voters during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964.
The White House press release noted that the medal is "presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors" and noted the honorees' work:
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were civil rights activists and participants in “Freedom Summer,” an historic voter registration drive in 1964. As African Americans were systematically being blocked from voter rolls, Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman, and Mr. Schwerner joined hundreds of others working to register black voters in Mississippi. They were murdered at the outset of Freedom Summer. Their deaths shocked the nation and their efforts helped to inspire many of the landmark civil rights advancements that followed.Chaney, from Mississippi, and Goodman and Schwerner, of New York, were traveling in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a black church, when they were arrested for speeding. They were, the NY Times reports, "slain after their release from jail in what is believed to have been a Ku Klux Klan ambush. Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam." Their deaths are "widely seen as helping inspire the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act the same year."
The men who shot and buried the three were convicted of civil rights violations, but not murder. In 2005, Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood revisited the case and tried Edgar Ray Killen, considered the ringleader in the murders. Killen was ultimately convicted of manslaughter, but not murder. During Killen's trial, Goodman's mother read a postcard her son, an Upper West Sider who had been a student at Queens College, sent to her on June 21, 1964, the last day of his life, "Dear Mom and Dad, I have arrived safely in Meridian, Miss. 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, Andy."
Killen, 89, is serving a 60-year prison sentence.
Related: June 21, 1964: The Murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner
A four block stretch of the Upper West Side, west of the West End Avenue, was carved out in 1967 to created "Freedom Place," to pay tribute to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. A plaque pay tribute to their how the men gave "their lives in the unending struggle for freedom and democracy."