Saturday, February 28, 2004

Miami campus marks role in civil rights movement

By Jon Gambrell
Enquirer contributor

OXFORD - Hidden in Miami's shady Western Campus lies a piece of this college town's past, a reminder of its role in one of the civil rights movement's pivotal events.

Standing across the street from the Freedom Summer memorial recently, sophomore Jessica Best of Dublin, Ohio, said: "I had no idea Western was part of the civil rights movement. This is the kind of stuff you read in textbooks and go on field trips."

Forty years ago, idealistic youths came from across the country to the Western College for Women, hoping to change a world divided by color. It was Freedom Summer. Training to teach and register African-Americans in Mississippi to vote, the 800 students' optimism would soon be shattered by the disappearance of three civil rights workers.

"We were all excited and curious, wanting to be part of this movement for social changes," said Richard W. Momeyer, a volunteer who is now a philosophy professor at Miami University. "That lasted one day. In 1964 in Mississippi, civil rights workers did not just go missing and show up again."

The bodies of Mickey Schwerner, 24; Andrew Goodman, 20; and James Chaney, 21, would be found buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss., in August 1964, six weeks after disappearing June 21.

Goodman had trained in Oxford; Schwerner's wife, Rita, was on campus here for training.

The three workers had been shot after being released from jail for speeding charges.

This was Mississippi of the early '60s, only 600 miles from the quiet college town, but a different world.

It was the same Mississippi as when Arthur F. Miller was stationed as an aviation cadet in Biloxi during World War II. To Miller, president emeritus of Oxford's NAACP chapter, the railroad trip south was a lesson in segregation.

"I wasn't allowed to get a pop or water on the train," he said. "I got off the train, thirsty. Someone said, 'That's the white water, black water is around the corner.' Pop machines were marked for whites. Everything was degrading."

Though 45 percent of the state was comprised of African-Americans, only 5 percent were registered to vote. Those who tried to register were intimidated and threatened.

The activist group Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee planned a massive voter registration drive for Mississippi. Organizers chose Oxford's Western College for Women, which would later become part of Miami University, to sign up student volunteers.


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