Mother Courage

In an excerpt from the new memoir My Mantelpiece, the late Carolyn Goodman ’36—whose son Andy was one of the three civil rights workers murdered fifty years ago this summer—recalls living through a parent’s worst nightmare


By Carolyn Goodman
with Brad Herzog

S ince childhood, I had always been in love with the stage, and I spent a few years acting in a community theater. One play in particular remained vivid in my memory. It was an antiwar drama called Bury the Dead in which, as a teenager, I played the mother of a dead soldier. At one point, in a surreal setting, I stood on stage in a state of denial that my son had been injured while a group of soldiers crouched below me in a trench. One of them was the actor playing my son.

“Let me see your face, son,” was my line. And I repeated it over and over. “Let me see your face, son.” Finally, he turned to me, showing me the little that was left of his face. He was dead. All the men in the trench were dead. My response was to scream. I did, and a primordial sound came out, remarkably heartfelt and drenched in emotion. I screamed that scream over and over every weekend.

Some three decades later, on June 21, 1964, my son disappeared. It was Father’s Day and only Andy’s second day in Mississippi. The longest day of the year became the longest day of my life.

Having driven all night from Ohio before going to examine what was left of the Mount Zion Methodist Church, Andy, Mickey, and James had not returned. We received a phone call that night from members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who explained their hard and fast rule that everyone was supposed to be back before dark. Here it was, late at night, and nobody had heard from them. Nobody knew where they were.

The very first day of Freedom Summer, and three volunteers were already missing in Mississippi. The fact that my son was one of them shook me to my soul. But I didn’t allow the dark possibilities in the back of my mind to creep into my thinking. Not yet, at least. As my husband, Bobby, once wrote to me: “It’s still as Freud put it—to know a thing and to accept firmly in your own mind the truth of what you know are such opposite poles of realization that this simple process has become one of the most difficult elements in human endeavor and the root of all personal failure.”


The following day, a phone call to the Neshoba County jail revealed that Andy, Mickey, and James had been arrested the previous afternoon for speeding in their blue Ford station wagon. They hadn’t been seen since. The FBI, having already begun a church arson investigation, became intensely involved, eventually devoting 153 men to the case. When officials began searching in the swamps and forests of Mississippi, they didn’t find the bodies of my son and his colleagues. But they did find a number of other bodies—local African Americans who had gone missing over the years. It was that kind of place and that kind of time, suffering from that kind of inequality between the resources and attention given blacks and whites.

Within two days, the case had begun to galvanize the country, so much so that Bobby and I, along with Mickey’s father, Nathan Schwerner, flew to Washington, D.C., where President Lyndon Johnson personally greeted us and told us he would do everything in his power to find our sons. When we returned home, not long after we walked into the house, President Johnson called to tell us that an abandoned, badly burned, blue Ford station wagon had been found in a swamp thirteen miles northeast of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

I screamed in agony. This time it was real.

That same day, we received a postcard Andy had mailed upon arriving in Mississippi. He had been told to write us a positive message. That way, no matter who read it, they would get no revealing information. For decades, the card remained on my mantelpiece.

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