The recently released and well-received memoir The Movement Made Us about the Freedom Rider Dave Dennis shines a spotlight on one of the most understudied groups of the civil rights movement, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Dennis, who started as a member of the New Orleans CORE chapter, was also one of the leaders of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, a massive attempt to obtain the right to vote for Black citizens throughout the South. As a researcher on CORE for the past 15 years, I first learned about Dennis during the premiere of the documentary series Eyes on the Prize. In it, he can be seen clearly having a nervous breakdown while delivering the eulogy at the 1964 funeral of James Chaney, who along with fellow CORE activists Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman, had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan for participating in that summer’s voter registration effort.
During the course of my research on the history of CORE in New York City, I recently discovered surveillance footage of Mickey Schwerner taken by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). This footage reminds us that contrary to the accepted mainstream narrative, the civil rights movement was not something exclusive to the South but also happened in the North. In the fight, CORE was the tip of the spear and Schwerner was one of its most significant soldiers.
It was CORE, the first of the direct-action groups, that introduced the concept of nonviolence to the civil rights movement. While CORE’s 1961 Freedom Rides campaign popularized its decades long fight against discrimination in housing, employment and education, CORE also suffered from unwanted attention of government intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
This surveillance footage exposes how the NYPD worked to thwart CORE’s efforts to end racial discrimination. It is now housed in a special collection at the New York City Archives, which uploaded the footage to its website just before the COVID outbreak. The films were shot by the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI), a specialized NYPD unit whose job was to monitor political radicals and “subversives.” The footage shows Schwerner primarily protesting against discrimination in employment, specifically in the construction industry. This reveals how Schwerner was heavily involved in activism well before he was murdered in Mississippi. His wife, Rita, is shown with him in the footage. She fought for 50 years to have the people responsible for her husband’s death brought to justice.
The focus of the surveillance was not the Schwerners but instead the many demonstrations held by CORE — in particular, those of its downtown chapter, of which they were both members. Located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was then becoming a predominately Puerto Rican neighborhood, Downtown CORE is notable, according to the historian Joel Schwartz, for having introduced the rent strike tactic to the civil rights movement — an effort that Mickey Schwerner actively participated in. This tactic was quickly adapted by several other social justice groups, from the Black Panthers to the Young Lords.
Mickey Schwerner is significant for several reasons. Along with Chaney and Goodman, he holds a special place in the history of the civil rights movement. Like the Freedom Riders, these three activists have achieved an almost mythological status. Their murders, one of many such acts of domestic terrorism faced by activists during that era, were a major impetus for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin illegal. The act not only prohibited racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, it also outlawed discrimination in terms of the right to vote, a section strengthened by the Voting Rights Act in 1965. This is especially relevant given the current trend of voter suppression and efforts to disenfranchise Black voters by Republicans who have, for all intents and purposes, become the legislative branch of the white supremacist movement.
The murders of these Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were aided and abetted by the local police, a frightening scenario which brings to mind the reported links between law enforcement and the storming of the Capitol on January 6. The murders of these three activists almost 60 years ago speaks to how white supremacist violence is an ongoing problem central to U.S. history. It also speaks to the historic links between police brutality and white supremacy.
This connection can be seen in much of the surveillance footage which captured CORE members protesting against police brutality. There is even one clip which shows Mickey Schwerner demonstrating directly in front of police headquarters in downtown Manhattan. This clip is also painfully ironic given the circumstances of Schwerner’s murder. CORE made fighting against police brutality a national issue in 1964 specifically because of an incident in which a Black man was tortured at a police precinct in the Bronx by detectives dressed like Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. CORE’s campaign not only precedes that of the Black Panther Party but helps explain why BOSSI went to such extraordinary lengths in order to neutralize CORE.
The hundreds of film clips exhibited on the NYC Archives’ website reveal the extent to which CORE was considered a threat by BOSSI and the city government. One of the main reasons was because of how successful CORE was at influencing masses of people to join the movement. In teaching people from all walks of life how to organize, CORE trained a whole generation of activists who went on to affect the larger Black freedom movement in ways that had far-reaching consequences. Mickey Schwerner, who was Jewish, was just one example. His participation in the movement not only speaks to the Jewish contribution to the Black freedom struggle, it illustrates why he is considered a model for today’s anti-racist activist. This film footage not only preserves a crucial part of civil rights history, it reminds us of the role CORE once played as one of the U.S.’s premiere anti-racist organizations.
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