Bender, Rita Schwerner

Rita and Bill Bender photographed in Oxford MS in 2004 with students in the Winter Institute’s Summer Youth Institute

Rita Schwerner Bender was born in 1942 and is considered a key player and civil rights activist during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Rita Schwerner and her husband Michael Schwerner were native New Yorkers who moved to Meridian, Mississippi, in January of 1964. They were tasked to work as field staff for the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE), assigned to the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Rita and Michael’s primary work was in the creation a community center that focused on black voter registration.

On June 21, 1964 Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman went missing after their investigation of a black church bombing in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Almost forty days later, the bodies of the three men were found buried near a dam. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, in collusion with local law enforcement, were responsible for these murders. Michael Schwerner’s and Andrew Goodman’s deaths drew attention on a national level solely because of his identity as a white man. Rita Schwerner acknowledged this in her statement to the media, claiming that the world would have taken little notice if her husband were a black man.

Bender continued her efforts to improve voting issues with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party following the death of her husband. She eventually earned a law degree and worked as a public defender for the American Civil Liberties Union. She returned to Mississippi in 2005 to testify in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, who was found guilty of manslaughter for orchestrating the murders of her husband, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.

Rita and her second husband, Bill Bender, are attorneys in Seattle, Washington, and remain deeply involved in civil rights and racial justice work.

Click here for a paper Rita Bender presented at the University of Mississippi on October 25, 2005

See also “The Murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner”


Hannah-Jones, N. (July 22, 2014). A Brutal Loss, but an Enduring Conviction. Retrieved from:

Testimony of Rita L. Schwerner (1964). In Mississippi Black Paper: Fifty-Seven Negro and White Citizens’ Testimony of Police Brutality, the Breakdown of Law and Order and the Corruption of Justice in Mississippi (New York Random House, 1965), pp. 59-60,61, 62-63.