Highlights from testimony of Rita Schwerner-Bender
Thursday, June 16, 2005 7:00 AM
Here are some highlights from the testimony June 16, 2005, of Rita Schwerner-Bender in the triple murder trial of Edgar Ray Killen.
Bender, a Seattle attorney, told the court about the work she and her late husband, Michael Schwerner, did in Mississippi, where they along with James Chaney set up a community center in Meridian and helped people register to vote.
Schwerner and two others were murdered in Neshoba County on June 21, 1964. Killen is the first to stand trial in the case.
During questioning from Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan, Bender gave an overview of their work in Meridian and Neshoba County and the events leading up to the murders.
Under cross examination, Bender was questioned by defense attorney James McIntyre, telling the court she had not seen Killen until a few days earlier when she saw him in court.
She testified she had no personal knowledge of his involvement in the murder case.
McIntyre questioned her repeatedly about whether she was aware she was followed by the FBI in 1964.
Bender, smiling and looking at the jury during most of her testimony, said she and Schwerner married in 1962, she was 20 years old and a student at Cornell. He, 22 at the time, had just graduated from the University of the City of New York.
The couple came to Meridian two years later to work in the civil rights movement and help establish a center with numerous books where they held reading classes and story hours for children.
Bender said community centers such as those were a precursor to what is known today as Head Start.
The Schwerners were often threatened, she said, while living in the homes of African Americans in Meridian and at one time rented an apartment without running water.
‘It was in terrible shape,” she said. “There was no running water for washing.”
The couple had to shower each morning at a hotel owned by African Americans, always going in the back door so they wouldn’t be seen, she said.
Bender told the court that her husband and Chaney, whom they called J. E., came to Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County in late May, 1964, around Memorial Day to talk with members about setting up a school to train people who wanted to register to vote.
The three of them left Mississippi in mid-June to attend a training session in Oxford, Ohio, where they met Andrew Goodman. While there they learned that two or three elderly members of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Neshoba County were badly beaten on June 16 and the church burned to the ground.
Bender testified that they were upset about the beatings and worried that other church members might be at risk. An emotional Bender said her husband felt terrible about the beatings and was extremely distressed.
“Both he and J. E. felt they had a responsibly to the people who put themselves at risk,” she said.
Michael Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman returned to Mississippi on June 20 while she stayed in Ohio to continue helping with the training, she said.
She said her husband got up between 3 and 4 in the morning, “got dressed, kissed me goodbye and left in a blue station wagon.”
That was the last time she saw him alive. He did, however, call her when he arrived in Mississippi and told her he planned to go to Philadelphia the next day.
Bender testified she learned the three men were missing during the night of June 21 and decided to return to Mississippi. She was in an airport in Cincinnati when she learned that their burned station wagon had been found.
Pausing in her testimony, Bender said that was when it “really hit me for the first time, they were dead.”
She flew into Meridian the next day and then came to Philadelphia to look at the burned station wagon. She returned to New York to spend time with her family and her husband’s family about two weeks later and learned her husband’s body had been recovered on Aug. 4, in a phone call from his brother.
Bender identified a photo of her late husband which was shown to the jury.
Upon cross examination, Defense Attorney James McIntyre asked Bender if she had any knowledge that she was being followed by the FBI when she returned to Mississippi after learning her of husband murder.
She said she talked with the FBI but didn’t know if they were following her.