Twenty-five years after confronting a President to demand federal help in finding the body of her murdered husband, Rita Schwerner Bender was back at the White House Friday confronting another President.
Bender, the widow of murdered civil rights worker Michael H. Schwerner, traveled to Washington with relatives of Schwerner’s two co-workers, James E. Chaney and Andrew Goodman, who together became martyrs to the civil rights cause when they were killed along a country road near Philadelphia, Miss., in June, 1964.
Group Traveling North
The family members, who attended a ceremony Wednesday in Philadelphia marking the murders, have been traveling north to remind the public of what happened then and of the civil rights struggles that have not been won.
They met with President Bush in the Oval Office Friday to prod him to support strong federal voter registration efforts and new laws to restore affirmative action policies struck down this month by the Supreme Court.
When Bush responded to the group’s pleas for federal action on social problems with a stock speech on the virtues of volunteerism, Bender was ready.
“When he told me that he believed a group of volunteers would solve the problem,” she told reporters after the meeting, “and we were talking about problems such as decent housing and education and medical care, I asked him whether he envisioned inviting a family to come live in his home in Kennebunkport for the next 20 years and whether he thought that would be a solution.”
Bush rejected the suggestion, she said, which White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater later confirmed.
The incident was a departure from the usual decorum of such functions and was a rare moment of emotion in the often-passionless Bush White House. But it was reminiscent of the last time relatives of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner visited a President.
That time, with the three men missing for days and feared dead, President Lyndon B. Johnson resisted making a commitment to expand federal efforts to find them. When he tried to offer condolences instead, Rita Schwerner rebuked the President, saying: “This is not a social call.”
Intensity Hasn’t Waned
This time, the family members--Bender and Schwerner’s niece, Cassie Schwerner; Goodman’s mother, Carolyn, and brother, David; and Chaney’s sister, Julia Chaney Moss, and brother, Ben Chaney Jr.--used their meeting to make clear that their intensity about social justice has not waned.
As their meeting with Bush began, photographers and a few reporters were ushered into the Oval Office for a photo opportunity, and a reporter asked a question about the purpose of the meeting. As Bush started to explain to his guests his rule against questions at photo sessions, Bender turned to the reporters and gave her own answer.
The families would press Bush to make a commitment to “deal with the Supreme Court decisions that have so badly eroded civil rights in this country,” she said.
The group would also ask Bush to work for “strong and effective” laws to remove the remaining barriers to voter registration, the cause that had brought Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner together in Mississippi a generation ago, Carolyn Goodman added.
Bush, looking uncomfortable, avoided comment as White House aides began hustling the press out of the room.
When asked after the meeting whether the President had responded to their requests, the family members said that they had gotten few commitments. “I don’t think we came away with a strong ‘yes,’ ” Goodman said.
Bender was more blunt. “I am disappointed,” she said. “I believe the President doesn’t want to commit himself in the way we need a commitment to the work that needs to be done to ensure the dignity of all citizens.”