Each spring, around our seder tables, we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, our ancestor’s journey to freedom. In revisiting, year after year, this ancient story, we are given the opportunity to pause and appreciate how far we have come. But as we celebrate our people’s miraculous journey of liberation, we are reminded time and again that work remains – that we are not yet truly free.
It is in this tradition that we, along with other organizations including the Institute for Southern Jewish Life and the Union for Reform Judaism take time this summer, the 50th anniversary, to retell the story of the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Part of the larger Civil Rights Movement – during the summer of 1964 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee partnered together to register African Americans in the Jim Crow south to vote.
While voter registration efforts took place in a number of states, a decision was made to focus on Mississippi because of its egregiously low number of registered black voters. Resulting from the systematic use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation, nearly 100 years after the fifteenth amendment extended the franchise, only 6.7% of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered to vote.
Over the course of the summer many thousands of people were registered to vote, and the volunteers even succeeded in opening 30 “freedom schools.” But it was also a very difficult time. Those connected to the registration drive or thought sympathetic were often met with violent opposition. Churches, homes and businesses were burned, volunteers beaten, and over 1,000 people arrested. Most infamously, on June 21 three volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Their tragic and brutal murder, as well as the unprecedented number of college students, predominately white and from universities in the North, who came to participate in the voter registration drives led to extensive media coverage. Journalists from across the country descended on Mississippi. Their reports helped bringing national attention to the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans and ultimately helped get the Voters Right Act of 1965 passed through Congress.
Earlier I mentioned the murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. All three were active in the leadership of CORE – the Congress of Racial Equality. James Chaney was a veteran civil rights organizer from Meridian Mississippi, while Goodman and Schwerner were college students, both from New York and both Jewish. That they were Jewish is not coincidental. At least 50% of the whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 were Jews, as were, by some estimates, 90% of the civil rights attorneys in the South.
Jews played an important role in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and as Reform Jews we should take pride in knowing that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Some have suggested that Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement met an important psychological need – a chance to atone, if you will, for impotence of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust. But while psychological factors may have played a role, such an explanation discounts the importance of Jewish teachings and values, as well as the long history of Jewish and Afro-American partnership.
While many of us are familiar with the images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching hand in hand – Jewish involvement in the struggle for civil rights goes back decades earlier.
Henry Moscowitz, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, and Rabbis Emil Hirsh and Stephen Wise were amongst the co-founders of the NAACP – an organization that has several times been headed by Jews.
The Chairman of Sears Roebuck, Julius Rosenwald spent a large part of his fortune on improving the education of African Americans in the South. In partnership with W. E. Dubois, he helped establish nearly 2,000 primary and secondary schools. At one point, nearly 40% of all southern blacks were educated in a school Rosenwald helped establish. He was also involved in the founding of 20 historically black colleges or universities, including Howard University. Interestingly, during the 1930s and 1940s, many Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi Europe found employment, and with it a life-saving visa, at these institutions.
And finally, though by no means, exhaustively, there is the example of the American Jewish Committee – which funded the work of sociologist Kenneth Clark – who showed that separate is inherently equal. Clark’s work was at the heart of the seminal 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling – a case in which both the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Congress also submitted amicus briefs.
As these examples show, Jewish participation in the Freedom Summer of 1964 was not an isolated phenomenon. But as history shows, it was perhaps a high water mark. In the years that followed, the rise of the black power movement and other factors led to decreased Jewish involvement.
Still, Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement had a lasting effect – not only in helping to create a more just America, but on the character of the Jewish community as well. For those who came of age during the 1960s, and for their children and grandchildren, Tikkun Olam – the struggle to repair our world – became a central if not primary expression of Jewish life.
50 years after the Freedom Summer, we have a lot to celebrate. Today in Mississippi more than 75% of African Americans are registered to vote – making them a powerful voting block – even in Republican primaries. And thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968, there are legal protections against racial discrimination.
De-jure segregation is a thing of the past, but de-facto discrimination persists. America remains painfully divided along racial and socio-economic lines. That is what the events, the past few weeks out of Ferguson illustrate – and that is what a drive, just a few blocks west on Cervantes reveal every day.
And so we are reminded that there is still work to do. In the Passover Seder we are charged, B’chol Dor V’dor Chayav Adam Lirot Etzmo K’ilu hu yatza m’mitzrayim. In every generation one is obligated to see themselves as if they went out from Egypt. May we, in our generation, truly be freed from Mitzrayim – the narrowness of division – and may we, alongside our neighbors of every race, creed, and orientation, work to ensure America is truly the land of freedom and opportunity for all.