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December 14, 2015

Bernice Sims, M.S.W. ’82: Memorializing Fallen Heroes

by Rebecca Endres '15
Bernice Sims, M.S.W. ’82

Bernice Sims, M.S.W. ’82

In 1964, a young Bernice Sims, M.S.W. ’82, watched three fellow civil rights activists drive away from her home in Meridian, Mississippi, and head off to Neshoba County, Mississippi. It was the last time she would see them alive.

Fifty years later, Sims, a social worker, artist and longtime Long Island resident, published a book, Detour Before Midnight (SimsBernice713, 2014), to describe her last day with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner before they were slain by the Ku Klux Klan for their attempts to abolish Jim Crow laws in the South. She claimed that when she began seeking information about the deaths of her comrades, she found surprisingly little.

“I kept looking and looking, and it occurred to me that the story I was looking for could only be found within me,” she said.

On the last day of their lives, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman went to the Sims’ home to invite two of the older Sims brothers along to Neshoba County to investigate the burning down of a church that had been selected to be converted into a freedom school where illiterate African Americans would be taught to write their names so that they could vote.

The brothers were busy that day, and Bernice, an active volunteer in Meridian, offered to go in their place, but her offer was declined. Before midnight of that night, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were arrested and subsequently released into the hands of the KKK, who shot and killed the three men and buried their remains. The bodies would remain undiscovered for 44 days, though the horror would stay with the Sims family for decades.

“I’m so glad I was able to work through it in order to pay tribute to them,” Sims said, admitting that she dealt with a great deal of survivor’s guilt after their death.

At a time when civil activism is once again on the rise, she advises in her book to speak out and “assist change in some way.”

She writes, “We must remain vigilant, and we cannot rely upon the past accomplishments. The trumpet is sounding loudly for a new generation to move to the front again.”

This article was published in AU VU Magazine, Fall 2015 issue.
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