How a Murder Inspired a Lifetime of Passion for Criminal Justice Reform

Elizabeth Colleary is an advisor for the SHS Innocence Club. Follow @theinnocenceclub on Instagram for more information.

Elizabeth Colleary

Elizabeth Colleary is an advisor for the SHS Innocence Club. Follow @theinnocenceclub on Instagram for more information.

By Daniel Rublin, Scarsdale High School

The year: 1964. Three civil rights activists travel to Neshoba County, Mississippi where they are abducted and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The 1988 film Mississippi Burning highlights these murders, but Elizabeth Colleary, an art teacher at Scarsdale High School, remembers the murders more vividly than most. Her brother’s best friend, Mickey Schwerner, was one of the three murdered.

“I grew up next door to Mickey. He went to Pelham High School [and] his little dog Muffin used to play in my backyard,” said Colleary. “One of my first memories growing up was my mom on the phone with Mickey’s mom, Anne, crying saying ‘Tell me, Mickey is not in Mississippi.'” By then, the story of the missing civil rights activists was all over the national news.

Colleary explained that Schwerner and fellow activist Andrew Goodman had traveled to Mississippi to protect those who registered to vote. At that time, “if you are black and trying to register to vote, Klan guys are standing there, intimidating you and threatening you,” explained Colleary. The civil rights activists wanted to set up voter registration in black churches so black voters did not have to go to town halls where they would feel threatened.

Decades later, Schwerner’s death still influences Colleary, who strives to educate her students on social justice as well as art. Colleary further noted that her passion for criminal justice reform was inspired by SHS Global Citizenship Day as it focuses on awareness, advocacy, and activism.

Her passion for racial justice brought Colleary to the SHS Innocence Club for which she and SHS social studies teacher Andrew Morgan, co-advise.

“I would definitely say that we would [not have] been able to accomplish a lot of the events that we have been doing without [the help of Ms. Colleary and Mr. Morgan],” said Scott Goldban ’21, the founder and current president of the Innocence Club.

The Innocence Club recently made waves through Scarsdale High School. On February 9, the Innocence Club organized a schoolwide event that brought a wrongfully convicted man, Anthony Ray Hinton, to a Zoom webinar. In front of the entire school, Goldban and Colleary asked Hinton questions about his experiences and educated students on the importance of criminal justice reforms and eradicating racial injustices.

“The Hinton webinar really resonated with me,” explained Jamie Spielman ’23.

Colleary hopes that her work will inspire the next generation to continue the fight for criminal justice reforms.

“It is amazing to see someone who has this much effort, passion, and dedication to raising awareness about [criminal justice reform],” said Goldban.  “I definitely think that that helps inspire me.”

This story was originally published on Maroon on March 1, 2021.