Recap: Mrs. Schwerner flew to visit Ruchama to encourage her to not quit school and to finish her paper. She told her that the journalism teacher was so impressed with the beginning of the first draft that she wanted to submit it to a friend who might publish it in a big newspaper. Now, Ruchama is left with a decision to make.
Mrs. Schwerner took the next flight out to Mississippi, and so did Andy Goodman’s parents. The next morning, an FBI agent appeared at the door of the Hartsteins. “FBI. I need to speak with you,” he said to Mrs. Hartstein. He flashed his ID. “What is your relationship with the Herrings?”
She stammered. “We are neighbors, sir.”
I was working full-time at the dry cleaners, now that school was out, but I wasn’t due to work for another hour. I watched the man as he interrogated her. “They are suspect in an ongoing investigation. Do you know if they had any connections with the Klan?”
Mrs. Hartstein’s face paled. “I am not in a position to––”
The agent cut her off. “I am asking for a straight answer. Were they connected to the Klan?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
The FBI agent stared at her. She was not meeting his eye. He rose abruptly and marched next door.
Mrs. Herring was standing in the doorway in her starched apron. Her eyes darted back and forth, avoiding the FBI agent’s penetrating stare. Mrs. Herring clasped and unclasped her hands. “Can I offer you some sweet tea?” she asked.
The FBI agent demanded she show him the jail register. I knew what it would say. He pointed to the names: Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney. “You wrote ‘Negro’ next to Goodman and Schwerner. Why?” the agent barked.
Mrs. Herring stammered. “I was so confused. It was late and there was so much going on that day. I just got confused. George Cotton was locked in the Negro cell that night. It was busy that night. Charles McKay was locked up the night before for a drunk charge.”
Mr. Herring came and stood silently next to his wife.
The agent shook his head. “Tell me what happened after they were arrested and put in your jail.”
Mrs. Herring said, “They were brought in and fined.”
“Fines for what? What had they done?’
“Speeding and I think they were suspect for the Zion church burning. I think my husband mentioned that.”
The agent cleared his throat. He shook his head. “You know they were civil rights workers. They would not be the ones to burn down a Black church. Tell me what happened next.”
I could see he was getting annoyed at Mrs. Herring.
“I fried up some chicken. Gave those boys a nice southern dinner.”
“Then what?” He was writing in his notepad.
“Around midnight they got released, I believe.”
“For speeding you held them till midnight?”
“We had to wait for Justice of the Peace Leonard Warren to set the fine.”
The FBI agent scratched his head. “Funny, I saw a list of fines posted on the wall when I went into the jailhouse. It had a standard $25 fee. Sounds like you were stalling to keep them in jail.”
She clasped and unclasped her hands.
“Was there a trap set for them?”
“I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“Was a KKK person ready to take over with them?”
“I don’t know what you are talkin’ about. I assure you. We let them go and that was it.”
She clasped and unclasped her hands again. “They were nice boys. Justice Warren came in around midnight. I told you it was busy that night. The town drunk, George Cotton, was brought in by Warren. He let hisself into his Black cell. He knows where his place is.”
The agent shouted, “Mr. Cotton here told me you didn’t allow the boys a phone call. Why didn’t you allow the civil rights workers a phone call? It’s their right.”
“It was busy that night,” she mumbled.
Mr. Herring piped in, “I offered to call the Mrs. for Schwerner. He said no.”
The FBI agent ignored Mr. Herring and turned back to Mrs. Herring. “Is your nephew Billy Wayne Posey?”
“Yes, he is. I am mighty proud of that boy.”
“Well, he’s a suspect in this disappearance, and we know for a fact that he is a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“I was not aware of that,” she said.
I wondered if she had ever told the truth in her life. She and her husband went back inside and closed the door.
The agent suddenly turned towards me. I didn’t know he was even aware I was listening. “You stay here, too. I want to question you as well.”
“Tell me what happened the night the three men disappeared.”
I swallowed and told him what I could remember. Talking about it was hard. I felt myself fighting back tears. “Do you think you will find them, sir? Do you think they are okay?”
The man looked down at his clipboard. “I hope to G-d they are, son.”
After a pause, the agent asked me, “After they changed the tire, that’s when the sheriff demanded your ID?”
“Yes, and he let me go because I live next to the Herrings.”
The officer nodded. “Thank you for the information.” I had told him what I knew. I left out the attack by Jed and his gang. Should I have told him about it? I wanted to mention it, but I didn’t think this was the time. I was still afraid of them coming after me again if they knew I’d told about their vicious attack. Henry would say not to say anything. He knew how brutal Jed and his gang were. Still, had I done the wrong thing?
Another FBI agent was questioning Sheriff Price who had pulled up in front of the Herring house. “So where are those three young men?”
The sheriff fingered his hat and glared at the agent. “In my opinion, they are hiding somewhere and using this whole disappearance thing to get publicity and sympathy from the North.”
The FBI agent said, “I don’t need your opinion, sir. I just need the facts. Right now, three men are missing, and we intend to find them.”
Mrs. Hartstein told me to come inside. She quickly shut the door and whispered to me in a high-pitched voice. “If you cooperate with those men, you endanger us. You best leave.”
I agreed. I wanted no part of staying with people who sat back and let evil take its course. I excused myself and went downstairs to pack. I decided I would move out tonight. I had no idea where I was going to go, but I knew I couldn’t stay in this house another minute.
As I packed my meager belongings, I prayed with all my heart that the FBI would find my friends soon and that they were alive and well.
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of Denver Dreams (a novel, Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials and features in various magazines including A Bridge in Time – historical fiction serial (Binyan Magazine, 2017). She writes for the community column for the Queens Jewish Link and she writes the Queens page for Hamodia. She works as a writing consultant in many yeshivos and she teaches creative writing to students of all ages.