We Are Not Afraid

In August, 1964, the white residents of Neshoba County, Mississippi, were greatly distressed about the discovery of the remains of three young Civil Rights activists--one of whom was black--who had been brutally murdered. The community’s distress, however, was attributable not so much to a sense of horror at the criminal act as it was to the realization that “one of their own” must have told Federal agents where to dig for the bodies.

Andrew Goodman, age twenty, Michael Schwerner, age twenty-four, and James Chaney, age twenty-one, had been shot on June 21st by a white posse that hoped the boys’ “disappearance” would scare off other such troublemakers. WE ARE NOT AFRAID is primarily the boys’ story, but the authors have skillfully placed it within the broader context of the Civil Rights movement. Their re-creation of events includes, among others, the lunch counter sit-ins of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Southern whites were absolutely shocked to see “legions of well-dressed, well-behaved blacks who did not grovel or avert their gaze when a white man spoke.” The sit-ins made the nation as a whole more aware of the plight of blacks in the South and also rocked the most deeply held assumptions of conservative Southerners. The times were obviously changing, and the white South viewed these demonstrations with foreboding.

Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, although not academic researchers, rely heavily on primary sources: Court documents, interviews, and the official records of civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, help to re-create accurately the climate of fear and hate that permeated the South, and especially Mississippi, a quarter century ago. Fortunately, the biographical chapters on the young victims help to humanize what might otherwise have been just another bleak account of man’s inhumanity to man.