Bnai Brith Magazine Summer 2012 : Page 8

Jews in the Southern Struggle for Civil Rights

Dina Weinstein

Letting Justice Roll Down

In 1962, Melvin Meyer was a University of Alabama junior watching with growing unease the ugly reaction to the integration of Ole Miss practically next door. The following year, before Alabama Gov. George Wallace made his “stand at the schoolhouse door” against integration, Meyer, who had become editor of the University of Alabama newspaper, published an editorial that took a stand against bigotry.

Citing the violent reaction to integration on the Oxford, Miss., campus, The Crimson White editorial created a firestorm, and Meyer, a Jew from Starkville, Miss., who had only edited it, took the heat. He received hundreds of anti-Semitic hate letters. Local governments canceled their legal advertisements in the small-town newspaper his father owned. Crosses were burned on the lawn of his fraternity and in his parents’ yard.

“I became a pariah at the fraternity,” he says today from his home in the San Francisco area. “I was never an activist, but the experience made me more socially conscious. It made me more aware of the civil rights movement.”

The struggle for civil rights in the Southern states of the former Confederacy inspired college youth in the early 1960s to spend summers helping African- Americans register to vote, while challenging segregation in public accommodations, transportation and restaurants. They came largely from Northern campuses, full of idealism and hope that they could make a difference, and a disproportionate number of them were Jews.

Their stories are being recalled as the half-century anniversaries come and go: the 1961 Freedom Riders, the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, when three civil rights workers—two of them Jews from Northern cities—were slain. Meyer’s story is another chapter, lesser known, of Southern Jews who took a stand where they lived, not “outside agitators,” as the others would be called, but locals who faced shunning or worse in their own communities.

Whatever their origins, the Jewish youth who participated in the civil rights struggles were practicing tikkun olam, seeking to repair the world. “There’s an historic tradition,” says U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who helped to organize the Mississippi Freedom Party delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. “One factor is having been discriminated against. Having been a victim yourself unfortunately makes you sensitive about prejudice against people.”

For many of the Jewish youth, like rabbinical student Philip Posner, who were part of the struggle, it was an act of prophetic Judaism, expressed in Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The Jewish Factor

By some estimates, Jews comprised as many as a third of the white Freedom Riders, including half a dozen rabbis and rabbinical students. “While Jews constituted a majority of those Freedom Riders who were not black, there is scant or no mention of our participation in the struggle,” says Ralph D. Fertig, a native Chicagoan who as a 31-year-old father of three, participated in that historic challenge to segregation. Still, by their actions, Jews wrote an important chapter in the civil rights saga and left an indelible legacy for future generations.

As the anniversaries are marked, “people should know that blacks and Jews worked separately and together,” says Julian Bond, a prominent black civil rights leader who went on to serve in the Georgia legislature and as president of the NAACP. “We should remember the time we shared in the movement, and that we did so many positive things for this country.”

That so many civil rights workers were Jewish does not surprise Bond, who was raised as a Quaker. “Here are a people who were victims of discrimination in Europe, and here they faced discrimination,” he says.

“There was an attitude at that time: ‘I was called and I answered the call.’”

Paul Green, now 73 and retired from the University of Maryland, where he taught math, was one of the approximately 300 Freedom Riders organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge segregation in bus terminals and train stations. With four others from Cornell University, he drove to New Orleans to become part of a biracial group integrating a train to Jackson, Miss. As soon as they arrived at their destination, they were arrested and spent two weeks in the Hinds County jail. Ultimately, Green paid a $200 fine and, he says, “avoided Mississippi for the next few decades.”

Joining the struggle was “a natural thing to do,” inspired in part, he says, by his Jewish identity. “At that time, among other things, the memory of anti- Semitism in this country was still fairly recent. The Holocaust was still recent.” He had a bar mitzvah but then, as now, considered himself an atheist—and an “ethnic Jew.”

In Hinds County, he recalls, “the jails like everything else were segregated. One of the consequences was we never really got to know the black students who came on the train with us,” says Green, who lives in Washington, D.C.

Many of these Jewish civil rights workers have remained active in progressive causes in the decades since. Fertig, who as a Freedom Rider was beaten in an Alabama jail, went on to be a social activist on behalf of the poor in the District of Columbia and eventually a professor of social work at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Now in his 80s, he argued, unsuccessfully, in 2010 before the U.S. Supreme Court against a provision of the Patriot Act he said unconstitutionally limited freedom of speech and association.

Jehudah Menachem Mendel “Mendy” Samstein, a University of Chicago doctoral student in history from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, also continued to work for progressive causes. As a Brandeis University undergraduate, Samstein had known Frank and Abbie Hoffman, the social activist who went on to found the Youth International Party (“Yippies”) and was famously arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. After Brandeis, Samstein taught at black Morehouse College in Atlanta. There he met activist historian Howard Zinn, who taught at Spellman College, the sister school to Morehouse, until he was fired in 1963 for supporting student protests.

Samstein also came into contact with the leaders of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee and was named SNCC’s Mississippi state coordinator. In that role, he oversaw the recruitment and deployment of more than 800 college students from around the country into rural black towns during the summer of 1964. SNCC leader Robert Moses later called Samstein’s work “indispensable” and “instrumental” in the integration of the political party structures of Mississippi.

Later, Samstein worked for a union, organized against the Vietnam War and taught math, including with Robert Moses’ Algebra Project for inner city youth. Largely unheralded, Samstein died in 2007 at the age of 68. “He wanted to make history, not study it,” says Samstein’s son Ivan.

Defiance and Remembrance

Black-and-white mug shots of arrested Freedom Riders show scared, serious, smiling and idealistic young Americans defying segregation.

By carefully recording names and preserving the photographs, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, created to defend states rights, also highlighted these heroes of the civil rights movement. The images were made public in 1998 and are searchable at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History website.

In the months marking the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, all 328 mug shots were on display in the Mississippi Art Museum, steps away from where many of the Riders were arrested at the former Trailways bus station. Below the rows of faces hung 16 recent photographs of the Riders by Mississippinative Eric Etheridge. He published the collection in his 2008 book “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.”

The New Yorker magazine, reviewing the book, described them this way: “Most of the Freedom Riders were students. They weren’t all ‘outside agitators’— a surprising number were African-Americans from Mississippi. More than a few were clergymen or future clergymen, and many more were motivated by Christian faith...A few Freedom Riders, including [now U. S. Rep.] John Lewis [D-Ga.], would later achieve a degree of fame. Most ended up living more or less ordinary middle-class lives, but in almost every case with an element of service.” The review made no mention of the fact that a substantial number of the Freedom Riders were Jews.

They came to the South from places as far-flung as Los Angeles, California, and Revere, Massachusetts; Madison and Minneapolis; Berkeley, Baltimore and Brooklyn; Stillwater, Oklahoma, Bradford, Pennsylvania, and Ithaca, New York. They included an Adler, Davidov, Filner, Greenberg, Greenstein, Kaufman, Levine, Moskowitz, Rosenblum, Rosenberg, Silver, Posner and Ziskind, and they ranged in age from 18 to 34.

Alexander Weiss, whose family had fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1940 when he was four years old, was a San Francisco State College student at the time of his July 1961 arrest in Jackson as a Freedom Rider. He told Etheridge his last words for his disapproving father before he left for Mississippi were: “This is what happened to you. I’m not going to stand by.” Among those riders was 22-year-old Judith Frieze Wright, arrested at the Jackson Trailways station on June 21, 1961. From Newton, Mass., she was a recent Smith College graduate, then working for CORE in New York.

Wright, now 73 and still living in Massachusetts, recalls the Mississippi jailers as masochistic. She was denied asthma medicine. She saw guards beating prisoners. She recalls a guard watching a prisoner suffer through a miscarriage. A few days after the last group of Riders was arrested in Jackson, on Sept. 13, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued new regulations, mandating an end to segregation in all bus and train stations.

“There was a lot of singing,” recalled Wright about Parchman State Penitentiary, in a separate interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive. “There are times when I think it should have been the black people who did all this, instead of having white people come in from other areas. But I’m not sure that it would have caught the attention of the country in the same way if there hadn’t been white people involved.”

The 2011 Freedom Riders reunion, which Wright attended, included exhibitions, interfaith services, panel discussions, trail marker dedications, a civil rights tour and a black-Jewish dialogue. For many, it was their first time back. The most striking change for the riders: blacks in positions of power in the ranks of police and politicians, and the lack of fear to mingle amongst races. The program also included a play and a service at Jackson’s synagogue.

This was in marked contrast to how much of the city’s Jewish community reacted to the protesters during the 1960s, when, for the most part, they were not welcoming. At the time, Jews who, like Melvin Meyer, sympathized or dared to protest against racial prejudice, risked serious personal injury or worse, writes Clive Webb, in his 2001 book “Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights.” Southern Jewish merchants, he adds, were caught in the crossfire between vocal integrationists and violent segregationists.

Rabbi Perry E. Nussbaum, a Toronto native who was rabbi of the Jackson temple, was an exception. Weekly during the summer of 1961, he drove to the Parchman prison to visit the arrested Freedom Riders, many of whom did not know that it put Nussbaum’s Jackson congregation in danger. Nussbaum’s stand for civil rights resulted in the Klan bombing the synagogue and the rabbi’s home in 1967.

Freedom Rider Bob Filner had a long history in the movement. His father, a Yiddish-speaking GI who liberated concentration camps, fundraised for early civil rights efforts. Now a U.S. congressman representing the San Diego area, Filner says he was moved to tears when he stepped back into his Parchman cell during the reunion week. He said that Jews have sensitive antennae when it comes to discrimination and injustice.

“Yes, there is still discrimination,” Filner reflects in an interview. “We need to figure out a way to bring Latinos into the discussion of civil rights. We still need to address discrimination for our gay brothers and sisters.”

Mississippi Burning

One of the best known images of Jewish involvement in the civil rights struggle is the 1964 FBI MISSING poster of Andrew Goodman, 20; James Chaney, 21; and Michael Schwerner, 24. All were working in the Freedom Summer project, Schwerner and Goodman were Jewish New Yorkers trained in voter registration. Chaney was a local black civil rights activist from Meridian. While investigating a church burning, they were brutally murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I was there and I was frightened, but I was leaving soon,” says Frank, who helped organize the process of assembling a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and would later become one of the most powerful members of Congress as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. The group challenged the seating of the all-white state delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Though it did not prevail, its efforts further dramatized the state’s systematic discrimination against black voters.

The depths of the degradation for blacks in Mississippi struck Frank.

“That’s what I want people to know, how bad it was and how important the federal government’s intervention was,” reflects Frank. “Now it does not speak all that well against America that as long as Mississippi whites brutalized black people nobody cared. It was only when a whole bunch of white people from all over America showed up that you were able to get protection.”

On July 8, 1964, racists bombed a home in McComb, Miss. in which 10 civil rights workers lived and worked. An image of Samstein emerging bloody from that house inspired Abbie Hoffman to come South as a volunteer. “We’re going to show the [black] people that we are willing to share their suffering,” Samstein was quoted in The New York Times as saying.

Debra Schultz, the author of “Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” was struck in her research by the fact that, while Jews were involved in disproportionate numbers, their story is little known.

“The movement was led by black Christians,” Schultz explains. “Jews didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. The reason Jews do not claim this event is sensitivity. They feel they were lucky to be there, but the focus should be on the African- Americans.”

But among the most visible Jews was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a close friend and confidant of the Rev. Dr. Ma r t i n Lu t h e r King Jr. On March 21, 1965, Heschel, professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, joined the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., walking with King in support of voting rights. The white-bearded rabbi striding arm in arm with other clergy is an image that has been widely reproduced. Heschel, a German-Jewish refugee, explained his presence in the march this way: “Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?” After the march, he said the feeling was so powerful, he felt like he was praying with his feet.

Larry Brook, editor of Southern Jewish Life, a monthly magazine published in Birmingham, Ala., explains that this image at the time caused dread among many Southern Jews, who feared retaliation against themselves. While outsiders and locals marched against daily indignities, Brook explains, local Jews worked behind the scenes to negotiate an end to segregation and Jim Crow. Heschel lamented the reluctance of most Southern Jews to openly champion civil rights.

But Jewish, African-American and other civil rights leaders worked together to draft the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, meeting in the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, in Washington.

What happened next still pains Freedom Rider Lew Zuchman, executive director of the Supportive Children’s Advocacy Network in New York City.

In 1966 the notion of “Black Power” had taken hold, and whites, including Jews, were told they had no place in the movement they had helped to foster. Many turned to other issues, but many also remained steadfast in their support of human rights and social justice.

For social activist Simon Greer, former president and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice, Jews involved in civil rights were like the Exodus character of Nachshon who took the first daring steps, up to his neck, in the cold waters of the Red Sea out of Egypt, with the Pharaoh’s army on the Israelites’ heels. The Nachshon-like trailblazing by risk-taking visionaries makes that acceptable for the rest of us.

And the Beat Goes On

So, the work continues. The now merged Jewish Funds for Justice and Progressive Jewish Alliance invests and helps others to invest in jobs, housing and grass-roots leadership development. Last year, the group honored Freedom Rider and long-time activist Ralph Fertig. At the May 2011 event in Chicago, Fertig said that there remains much to do. “Blacks are still locked out of equal opportunities,” he said. “Nationwide, one in every 20 black males is in a state or federal prison, compared to one in 180 for white men…History texts give little account of the oppression that continues today.”

There is indeed a growing sentiment that history must not be forgotten. “For our students to be rooted in themselves, they have to be rooted in history,” says Allison Pokras, director of the Philadelphia- based Operation Understanding, which teaches black and Jewish teens about their shared heritage. The teenagers learn firsthand about the Freedom Rides and other civil rights events by visiting the Southern locales where they occurred and by hearing from participants.

Freedom Rider Zuchman, who has shared his story with OU teens, was taken aback when a black participant asked him: “Why did you participate? You’re white, you’re a Jew.” To Zuchman, it was obvious that he should not stand by in the face of injustice. As a Jewish American, he said his participation in the civil rights struggle was important and imperative, and worth recalling during this time of commemorations.

But Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College’s Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies who has written extensively about her father’s civil rights activities, cautions: “In these anniversaries, I hope we don’t simply look back but look to the present and the future.”

Don and Bobbie Siegel are doing just that. When Meyer was publishing his editorial, Don Siegel was the University of Alabama’s student council treasurer— and would later become its president. He, too, wanted to avoid the violence seen at Ole Miss when Alabama integrated.

“I went to fraternities and sororities and told them we had to have a peaceful integration at the university,” he remembers. “I had student leaders stand 20 yards apart on the day the first black student came to class, to keep the rabble rousers and problems down.” The governor’s symbolic stance at the schoolhouse door was no more than that, as black students Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled later the same day.

“My involvement was as a student officer, not as a Jew,” says Siegel. But he and his wife Bobbie, who met Don in college, continue to champion better race relations. Bobbie sits on the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The Siegels support a leadership institute on the Alabama campus and have endowed a scholarship for the promotion of diversity and inclusion.

“Race relations is my passion,” Bobbie Siegel says.

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