It was this first week of August, more than 50 years ago, when FBI agents finally and horrifically discovered the remains of three Civil Rights workers murdered in rural Mississippi. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been missing for 44 days, and had an informant not told authorities about their burial in a backwater earthen dam, their bodies may have never been recovered.
The eventual trial became both a national sensation and epic travesty. Due process found that the young men had been abducted at gun point, driven into the woods, tortured and shot. The assailants and accomplices were members of the Klan and employees of local law enforcement. Eighteen men were indicted, only seven were convicted, and none served more than a half-dozen years in prison.
Yet, it remained a victory of sorts. These were the first ever Civil Rights convictions to be upheld in Mississippi. And according to historian Taylor Branch, even this small victory may not have held if not for the unforgettable words and actions of one of the victims: Michael Schwerner.
Per the testimony of two of the convicted shooters, Schwerner was in the backwoods surrounded by a lynch mob. They were cursing him, humiliating and mocking him, beating him, slinging slurs and hate. They told him they were going to kill him and asked, in effect, “What do you think about that?” Mikey Schwerner gave a simple seven word answer: “Sir, I know just how you feel.”
Read that again: “Sir, I know just how you feel.” Schwerner knew about hate. He was acquainted with overwhelming rage, and by his own words felt the fire of murderous anger. But he didn’t respond to it, or with it. He didn’t retaliate or give in. He gave himself over, sacrificially, instead.
This young man encapsulated the non-violent, non-passive, ethic found at the heart of our best traditions, and so well articulated by Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” With so much vitriol in this world today, words like King’s and courage like Schwerner’s are needed more than ever.
I’m not so naive to think that entrenched hatefulness will suddenly disappear to be replaced with rainbows and unicorns. But I’m not talking about schmaltzy, trite emotionalism, either. This is fierce, courageous, action-oriented, sacrificial love that “never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” It understands, commiserates with, and empathizes with the other, but it never seeks to destroy them. Love seeks only redemption.
As Taylor Branch said of Schwerner, “Those words – that – was the epitome of it – of everything. You’re not giving into terror, anger. You keep the faith, bear witness to something greater, and bear the evil.” Love is the name for this thing that is “something greater.” It is the greatest thing of all, and no act of violence or injustice will ever outlast or overcome it.