I was privileged to meet Carolyn Goodman in the early ‘70s when she came to visit her son David, one of our gaggle of 20-somethings who thought we could create a mostly self-sustaining community in the northern California mountains just beyond the long shadow of the proverbial rat race.
Carolyn was of the generation we’d felt compelled to rebel against in order to break away and pursue our own dreams and passions, our own paths. She was a brilliant psychologis, a politically progressive thinker since before I was born, a refined lady living on New York’s Upper West Side, sitting there in the golden meadow with me—an overalled, long-haired milker of cows and goats with naught but a handful of dollars to his name, living sans electricity or an inside bathroom in a beat-up cabin on a little rise that looked eastward to where we sat.
Gabbing. And straight off because there was no gap to bridge, no playing field to level, no wand that needed waving. Just two humans at home on the planet, sitting in a quiet spot on a hot summer’s day and reveling in a slow dance of words. Things I said, ideas offered, beliefs I’d come to—things that struck so many of her generation as ungracious, outrageous, or even un-American—suffered no resistance from Carolyn. She listened carefully and with full attention (who could ever ask for more?), and even got my jokes. We found we had common sense in common, among other things. Things such as sadness, anger, a commitment to justice and equality, and an insistence on faith and hope.
I told Carolyn that the murders of JKF during my senior year in high school and of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy as I was finishing my senior year in college had left me feeling broken. I said that after hearing of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, I’d walked all night in a deluge of tears and rain, soaked through with hopelessness and heartbreak.
And when I stopped speaking, a chill came over me in the blazing heat. What was I saying to a woman whose own son had been murdered by racists when he was just 20 years old and coming into the fullness of his manhood? I looked down at the nothing that was happening on the ground.
The sadness she dealt with was beyond even my imagining until I myself became a parent. Less than a decade before her visit, Carolyn’s son Andrew, along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi during the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964, where the three young men had gone to register black voters. Theirs was not just a family tragedy but a pivotal American one that pushed forward the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as Dr. King’s Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And yet her response to that brokenness I’d described was not to tell me what she, who surely knew despair as well as anyone, did and felt when tragedy struck. It was not to instruct me on what I should have done. It was instead the reply of a compassionate fellow traveler who could well understand the idea of feeling lost enough to walk all night in a dark downpour with little regard for self or safety or direction. She said, “Well, of course you did.” And smiled.
And so began my understanding that the generosity of the Goodman family shone like a laser through the black hole of their grief. And that has not changed. Pretty recently David reminded me that the story of Andrew and his compatriots belongs not just to the families. It belongs instead to the American people—to the American conscience—and has become a notable patch in the fabric of our history.
Carolyn’s public face for the last 40 years of her life was as the mother of Andrew and all-around advocate for social justice. Two years after the murders, she and husband Robert set up the Andrew Goodman Foundation, run today by David and Executive Director Sylvia Goodman. And she never “retired” from her lifelong dream and drive for social justice. In 1999, at the age of 84, Carolyn was arrested in a New York City rally protesting the horrific police response that resulted in the senseless death of Amadou Diallo.
Now comes a wonderful surprise seven years after her passing. Carolyn’s memoirs, recorded in conversations with co-author Brad Herzog and called My Mantelpiece: A memoir of survival & social justice , has just been released. It includes a foreword by author-poet Maya Angelou and back-cover testimonials from Senator Elizabeth Warren, Congressman John Lewis, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and performer-activist Harry Belafonte. Brad Herzog talks about Carolyn and her life and the book in a radio interview here.
Hey there, citizens of all ages: be there or be square.