When the KKK murdered my childhood friend 

We must never give in to cruelty and violence. It is incumbent on all of us to stand up to bullies and be each other’s protectors.

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When the Ku Klux Klan murdered my protector, it made me see the world differently.

I was always the shortest kid in school, which made me an easy target for bullies. To protect myself, I got into the habit of befriending older boys who’d watch my back.

One summer when I was around 8 years old I found Mickey, a kind and gentle teenager with a ready smile who made me feel safe.

Over the years, I lost track of Mickey. It wasn’t until the fall of 1964, my freshman year in college, that I heard what had happened to him.

Several months before, Mickey, whose full name was Michael Schwerner, had gone to Mississippi to register Black voters during what was known as “Freedom Summer.”

On June 21, Michael and two other civil rights workers, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were arrested near Philadelphia, Mississippi by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price, for allegedly speeding.

That night, after they paid their speeding ticket and left the jail, Deputy Price followed them, stopped them again, ordered them into his car, and took them down a deserted road where he turned them over to a group of his fellow Ku Klux Klan members. They were beaten, shot at point-blank range, and buried in an earthen dam. Their bodies weren’t found until August 4.

The state of Mississippi refused to bring charges against any of the Klan members. Eventually, the U.S. Justice Department brought federal charges against Price and 17 others.

An all-white jury found seven of the defendants guilty, including Price. Ultimately none would serve more than six years behind bars.

When the news reached me that Mickey, my childhood protector, had been murdered by white supremacists — by violent bullies who would stop at nothing to prevent Black people from exercising their right to vote — something snapped inside me.

I began to see everything differently.  Before then, I understood bullying as a few kids picking on me for being short. Now I saw bullying on a larger scale, all around me. In Black people bullied by whites. In workers bullied by bosses. In girls and women bullied by men. In the disabled or gay or poor or sick or immigrant bullied by employers, landlords, insurance companies, and politicians.

Sixty years after the Freedom Summer murders, America still wrestles with bullies — a rise in hate crimes targeting people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, Jews, and Muslims — new laws restricting the right to vote, banning books, and stripping Americans of reproductive freedoms — leaders who insult and demean people with disabilities, women, and trans kids.

We must never give in to cruelty and violence. It is incumbent on all of us to stand up to bullies and be each other’s protectors.

Read it on Robert Reich’s blog.

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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.

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