Road Trip VI, Days 28-32, in my hometown, Durham, NC: My German Grandmother’s Take on Civil Rights Martyrs

Everyone who enjoys the privilege of time spent with aging parents knows this pattern: touch an object, hear a story. It could be an oil painting or a plate with cows on it; if it’s been held onto for decades, it has something to tell.

This week I’ve been roaming through my parents’ house in North Carolina, touching things and letting them talk to me. I’m especially lucky here, since my paternal grandma, my German Oma, was a sculptor. This house is bursting with her work. Today I’m going to let one of her pieces tell its story.

June 21, 1964. Philadelphia, Mississippi. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered buried in an earthen dam.

Chaney, Goodman and Shwerner (courtesy Mississippi Civil Rights and Delta Blues Bookstore)

Chaney, Goodman and Shwerner (courtesy Mississippi Civil Rights and Delta Blues Bookstore)

Actually that’s incorrect. Civil Rights activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner disappeared that Freedom Summer, having left their base in Meridian, Mississippi to investigate some church burnings in the eastern part of the state. According to Curtis J. Austin in The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, “The Ku Klux Klan had burned Mount Zion Church because the minister had allowed it to be used as a meeting place for civil rights activists. After the three young men had gone into Neshoba County to investigate, they were subsequently stopped and arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. After several hours, Price finally released them only to arrest them again shortly after 10 p.m. He then turned the civil rights workers over to his fellow Klansmen. The group took the activists to a remote area, beat them, and then shot them to death.” It took several weeks for their bodies to be found.

My grandmother, Edith Brauer Klopfer, moved from California to North Carolina in 1965, to help take care of baby me. Thirty years before, she had moved with her husband and young sons from Germany to Philadelphia–temporarily, she thought, to give that pesky Herr Hitler a wide berth. The Klopfers were Jewish.

My parents have not been able to tell me exactly what my grandmother thought of the Civil Rights movement she walked into when she moved to the South. But they don’t need to. This sculpture says it all. She called it Three Martyrs. It’s Chaney, Goodman and Schwermer.

Three Martyrs

Three Martyrs

Most historians agree that, because Schwerner and Goodman were White, the federal government’s response left earlier responses to murders of Black activists in the dust. If you’ve seen Mississippi Burning, you know they established an FBI office in Jackson and called out the state’s National Guard and U. S. Navy to help search for the three men. Freedom Summer organizers weren’t dumb–they had hoped for exactly this kind of attention when they asked for White volunteers.

Austin continues,

After several weeks of searching and recovering more than a dozen other bodies, the authorities finally found the civil rights workers buried under an earthen dam. Seven Klansmen, including Price, were arrested and tried for the brutal killings. A jury of sympathizers found them all not guilty. Some time later, the federal government charged the murderers with violating the civil rights of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. This time the Klansmen were convicted and served sentences ranging from two to ten years.

This is as moving to me as it probably is to you. What moves me even more, though, is thinking of my German Jewish Oma, wielding her chisel to coax these figures out of the wood…figures which still testify, 50 years later, to the darkness from which our country is still hauling itself. Did she think of her homeland and its six million martyrs? Was it a work of despair or hope, sorrow or rage, or honor?

I think it was all of those. I run my fingers over the grooves her chisel made, thinking of her strong arms, and I pay homage to the three, to all they represent, and to her–and all she represents.

8 thoughts on “Road Trip VI, Days 28-32, in my hometown, Durham, NC: My German Grandmother’s Take on Civil Rights Martyrs

  1. a very moving story, Gretchen, especially since i knew your Oma :-), (your PATERNAL grandmother though). By the way, we have a piece of hers here in Austria. It’s on the shelf in our living room. I can send you a picture of it some day.

  2. I remember that sculpture in the house, but I never knew the story behind it. It’s incredibly touching, and I wish I had met your grandmother.

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