Twenty-four-year-old Schwerner had come to Mississippi in January of 1964 with his wife Rita after having been hired at a CORE field worker. In his application for the CORE position, Sch werner, a native of New York City, wrote "I have an emotional need to offer my services in the South." Schwerner added that he hoped to spend "the rest of his life" working for an integrated society. On January 15, 1964, Michael and Rita left New York in their VW Beetle for Mississippi. After talking with civil rights leader Bob Moses in Jackson, Schwerner was sent to Meridian to organize the community center and other programs in the largest city in eastern Mississippi. Schwerner became the first white civil rights worker to be permanently based outside of the capitol of Jackson. He received $9.80 a week for his work for CORE.
Once in Meridian, Schwerner quickly earned the hatred of local KKKers by organizing a boycott of a variety store until the store, which sold mostly to blacks, hired its first African American. He also came under heavy attack for his determined efforts to register blacks to vote. After a few months in Meridian, despite hate mail and threatening phone calls and police harrassment, Schwerner believed he made the right decision in coming to Mississippi. Mississippi, he said, "is the decisive battleground for America. Nowhere in the world is the idea of white supremacy more firmly entrenched, or more cancerous, than in Mississippi."
On Memorial Day, 1964, Schwerner and Chaney went to Longdale in Neshoba County, where Schwerner asked permission of a black congregation at Mount Zion Church to use their church building as the site for a new "freedom school." On June 16, while Schwerner was in Oxford, Ohio attending a training session for Freedom Summer volunteers, Mount Zion was burned to the ground by local klansmen. It is not surprising that the first thing Schwerner wanted to do when he returned from Ohio with Chaney and Goodman on June 21 was to return to Longdale and meet with those who had been beaten and lost their church as a result of his efforts on their behalf. It was after that return visit to Longdale, during the drive back to Meridian, that the blue CORE station wagon was pulled overby Deputy Cecil Price and the three civil rights workers fell into the Klan's fatal trap.
Schwerner was the second of two sons of a father who operated a wig manufacturing plant and a mother who taught high school biology. Mickey lived in New York City until age eight, when the family moved to Westchester County. He was described by family and friends as friendly, good natured, gentle, mischievous, and "full of life and ideas." He believed all people were essentially good. He named his cocker spaniel "Ghandhi." He loved sports, animals, poker, W. C. Fields, and rock music.
Schwerner enrolled at Michigan State, then transferred after a year to Cornell, where he majored in rural sociology. While at Cornell, Schwerner campaigned successfully to have a black accepted as a pledge at this fraternity. Following his graduation from Cornell, he enrolled in Columbia's graduate program in sociology, but dropped out to take a job a social worker in a housing project on New York's Lower East Side. He was by all accounts a gifted social worker with a special rapport with teenagers. He married Rita Levant, then an education student at Queen's College. Schwerner's commitment to civil rights work deepened after he watched the Birmingham riots of 1963. Schwerner appiled to the national CORE, asking to be posted in the South.