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Why I Rode: Henry Schwarzschild


Henry Schwarzschild was arrested with eight other Riders at the Trailways station in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 21, 1961. He was 35 years old. He died in 1996, at 70, several years before I started my project, so I never got to meet him, or even learn much about him.

But preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Rides in 2011, I came across his compelling answer to the single question most asked of the Riders: Why did you go?

I do not think that my participation in the Freedom Rides made an appreciable difference to the inevitably successful outcome of this struggle. Nor did I expect it to heal the wounds of which the white majority has for decades inflicted on the Negro. I went to the South in inadequate obedience to the Biblical demand “to do justly.” I went as a Jew who remembers the slavery of our forefathers in Egypt and who wants to obey the injunction to consider himself personally liberated from Egyptian slavery. I went as a Jew in response to the prophetic question “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel? said the Lord.” My participation in the Freedom Rides was an act of faith in the validity of a moral act. I went because I needed to go.

– From Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Guy and Candie Carawan.

Like at least two other Riders, Henry Schwarzschild was born in Europe and as a child fled with his family to the United States to escape World War II. Still, as Fred Powledge recounts in Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It, Schwarzschild’s early years must have seemed charmed:

Schwarzschild was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1925, to a family of Jewish intellectuals who traced their name back to the Frankfurt ghetto of 1425. He moved to Berlin in 1931. His home was filled with the comings and goings of politically, intellectually, and artistically active people. “Even as a young kid,” said Schwarzschild, “it was impossible to avoid being made enormously, prematurely conscious of the world around one.”

In 1939 he and his family fled to Paris, then to New York City. For the rest of his life, Schwarzschild said, he would be “very sensitive to issues of political liberty.”

In 1944, he went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for his Army basic training as well as his basic introduction to race relations in the deep south. During the sit-ins in 1960, he joined a picket line outside a five-and-dime in Lexington, Kentucky, and was soon in touch with the Congress of Racial Equality.

After the Rides, Schwarzschild remained active in the movement, working closely with SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1964 he started the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, which for six years sent lawyers south to help with civil rights cases.

Schwarzschild next turned his attention to the death penalty. He worked on the issue for the American Civil Liberties Union from 1972 to 1990, the last 15 years as the head of its Capital Punishment Project. In his 1996 obituary in the New York Times he was described as “the major architect” of the campaign to end executions in this country.

Read more about Schwarzschild: Wikipedia | New York Times obituary