Mississippi burning, remembered

Mississippi burning, remembered

Puffin marks jubilee of Freedom Summer

Mark Levy and Roscoe Jones Sr., veterans of Meridian Freedom School efforts. Photo courtesy Mark Levy

It was a summer that changed lives.

It was a fight for American democracy in the face of terrorism.

It was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” and it drew 700 college students and young adults to help Mississippi activists fight for civil rights.

The year was 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson – but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been formed only four years earlier. In 1961 it had taken part in the Freedom Rides, in which racially integrated groups had taken bus rides across Mississippi together, in violation of local segregation laws. SNCC had played a leading role in organizing the 1963 march.

Outside of the national spotlight, SNCC was working in the deep South to register blacks to vote. SNCC organizers would travel the countryside and knock on doors. “They had a tremendously difficult time. People were incredibly afraid to talk with them,” recalled Dorothy Zellner of Manhattan, who worked for SNCC at the time, typing up affidavits from the field organizers.

“The community was very very afraid, with good reason, because people who registered to vote were often fired, or their homes were firebombed, or in some case they were murdered,” she said.

Ms. Zellner will be speaking at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck on Saturday night. She will be part of a panel marking the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the opening of a traveling exhibition on the topic created by Jewish Currents magazine and sponsored by the foundation.

Joining her on the panel will be Lawrence Bush, editor of Jewish Currents, a quarterly magazine that bills itself as “a progressive, secular voice”; Theodora Smiley Lacey, an African American leader of Teaneck’s desegregation efforts in the 1960s; Mark Levy, another Freedom Summer volunteer, and David Goodman, Andrew Goodman’s brother. Andrew Goodman was a Freedom Summer volunteer who became famous in the worst possible way: He was arrested, along with fellow activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, on June 21, 1964, and then all three were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were not found for a month and a half, after an intense FBI search.

Their disappearance became a major news item, and President Johnson used the attention to break the filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act.

It brought national attention to a culture of Ku Klux Klan violence, which included beatings, church burnings, and murder – crimes that in large part had escaped national scrutiny because they involved Mississippi blacks.

And because Mr. Goodman and Mr. Schwerner were New York Jews and Mr. Chaney a native of Meridian, Mississippi, the tragedy also provided martyrs’ faces to the black-Jewish alliance that had fought the Jim Crow system of segregation through court battles, legislation, and public campaigns for brotherhood. It was an alliance that brought lawyers from civil rights organizations and lawyers from Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee to a conference table at Reform Judaism’s Washington office, where they drafted the civil rights legislation.

The alliance was visible that summer in Mississippi; at least a third of the volunteers from the North were believed to be Jewish.

And for those volunteers, like Mr. Levy, being Jewish was not a coincidence; it was the reason they were involved in the civil rights movement.

“My Jewish teachings and values made it feel like the right thing to do,” Mr. Levy said. And growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, he was taught that if discrimination was tolerated against one group, it could be turned against Jews next. “Opposing racism was a practical as well as an ethical issue,” he said.

It was actually Ms. Zellner who recruited him for Freedom Summer.

“She made it very clear that it was a local movement of local black civil rights activists that had been struggling for years, and had gotten to the point where they needed help from around the country,” he said. “Not only in doing projects in Mississippi, but in turning a national spotlight on Mississippi.”

Ms. Zellner also had been clear about the danger the northern volunteers faced. “She was very upfront and honest about what we would be getting in to,” he said.

Before heading down to Mississippi, all the SNCC staff and volunteers met in Ohio for training. Mr. Levy and his wife Betty had planned to work on the voter registration drives. But in Ohio, they met Mr. Schwermer’s wife, Rita, whom Mr. Levy had known from Queens College.

“Mickey and Rita said to us, will you guys do freedom schools instead of voter registration?” he recalled. (The freedom schools were programs for African Americans – mainly the children of the local civil rights activists.) Levy and his wife agreed, and stayed on for a second week of training, which was devoted to the schools.

“Right before the end of that first week, word came up that one of the churches that was going to be used for a Freedom School in Meridian, Mississippi, had been burned down and some of the people had been beaten. So Mickey [Schwerner] and Andy [Goodman] and James [Chaney] and some people who had finished the training went back to Mississippi,” Mr. Levy said. “Their first day back they went up to check on the church that was burned. That’s when they got arrested and taken to jail and then released into the hands of the Klan.”

He and the rest of the Freedom School teachers had a week more of training in Ohio. But they did not reconsider heading south; “hardly anybody” backed out. “We all had a healthy respect for the situation,” he said. “SNCC made us call our parents. They didn’t want anybody coming down who hadn’t really thought it through.”

Mr. Levy was one of a group of 15 teachers who were sent to Meridian. They held classes in a Baptist seminary and stayed in local people’s homes. “They were the brave people. They risked an awful lot having us,” he said.

The Freedom Summer volunteers were embedded in the African American community. “In the evenings we would also do voter registration work or go to meetings in the communities. On weekends we would go to churches to meet people.

“There was some attempt to reach out and make contact with the white community,” he said.

That initiative didn’t go well. Neither did his effort to connect with Meridian’s small Jewish community.

“My wife and I went to the synagogue,” he said. “We were rejected. We weren’t even allowed in. We were turned away by an angry Jewish woman who shouted, ‘We are Southerners first – you are not welcome here.'”

The Freedom School served a couple of functions, Mr. Levy said.

In part, it served to develop the next generation of leadership for the civil rights movement. Most of the activists in Mississippi were in their late teens and early twenties. The high school-aged students Mr. Levy taught weren’t that much younger. They were being groomed to be the next wave of leadership.

The Freedom School also was a community-building experience for children whose parents were active in the movement. “There was a range of kids. Some came from working class or middle class families. Some from very poor families. Some from the Negro public schools. Some from the segregated parochial schools,” he said.

Students went to segregated schools, and most of the schools for black children didn’t have art or drama. So the volunteers brought art and drama and role playing, and there was a traveling theater troupe.

On the first day the visiting teachers explained their plans, and asked what else they should do. “They came back with two things that really surprised us. They wanted French, and they wanted typing. We asked why?

“The answer was clear and simple: ‘They teach those subjects in the white school. They don’t teach them in the Negro school.’ The white school board was not going to invest money so students in the Negro school could learn typing. The kids were being trained to chop cotton” – the term for cutting down the weeds between rows of cotton in the field – “or work in people’s homes. If you taught them typing, they might have all sorts of ideas.

“We scrambled. We found someone who could teach French. We found some typewriters.

“The students not only learned rudimentary typing and French – how much can you learn in a couple of weeks? – they learned it was not their fault that they weren’t given it in school,” he said.

The core of the curriculum was historical and political case studies, focusing on black history but also including lessons on the Holocaust.

And beyond the history, the background to the struggle, Freedom Schools aimed “to get kids to ask and answer questions that didn’t have yes or no answers.”

Questions like: If the civil rights movement is about ending segregation, does that mean that black people want what white people have?

“There was a critical edge to the question: Do you want to be white, or are there some things in white society that exist that you don’t want to have? What’s good and bad about white society and white culture? Those were long discussions. Then we asked the same questions about black culture,” he said. There were also discussions about the methods and tactics being used by the movement.

“Much of the curriculum was about empowering people to ask difficult questions and to think creatively and critically,” he said.

While Mr. Levy was teaching, Ms. Zellner was registering voters – and challenging the Mississippi Democratic party, and, ultimately President Johnson.

One of the techniques that the racist Jim Crow system used to prevent blacks from voting was by arguing – successfully – that the Democratic primary elections (which in the solidly Democratic Jim Crow states were decisive) were not public and subject to federal regulation, but rather the actions of a private association that was free to make its own rules, no matter how racist, not subject to federal interference. In the spring of 1964, SNCC and its allied organizations turned that logic on its head, and formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – and began registering members and holding caucuses to create a slate of delegates, mostly but not all black, to represent Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in August.

“We demonstrated that vast numbers of black people wanted to register to vote but were prevented by the state,” Ms. Zellner said.

In Atlantic City, the party urged the credential committee to reject the whites-only delegation. Dr. King helped make the case. But President Johnson twisted arms, including those of Jewish organizations that had promised to support the Freedom Democratic Party, and imposed a compromise that pleased neither side.

“It actually was an opportunity to have the voice heard of poor and disenfranchised people, and this convention rejected it,” Ms. Zellner said. “We had a chance, 50 years ago, to have real participation, by real people, and the doors were slammed in their faces.”

For many of the young activists, this rejection loomed larger than the passage and signing earlier in the summer of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill or the passage the next year of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, made possible by President Johnson’s landslide victory that fall. It was the beginning of a process of radicalization among many Civil Rights activists – one that would tear apart the alliance between the black and Jewish communities a few years later.

For both Mr. Levy and Ms. Zellner, the events of 50 years ago helped forge a lifetime of activism.

“The struggle is still going on,” Ms. Zellner said. “These current efforts for demanding voting ID are still an effort to restrict black people’s right to vote. It’s not completely secure. The struggle is still going on. It didn’t finish in 1964 by any means.”

Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush says that the struggle continues in the fight against what has been dubbed “the New Jim Crow.”

“I want to encourage Jews to recognize mass incarceration as a latter day form of the racial caste system,” he said. “The issue is already well along in the U.S., with the attorney general talking about changing sentencing laws for minor drug crimes, with a lot of Republican governors trying to decrease the prison population.”

He cites civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, whose book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” argues that by targeting black men through the so-called war on drugs, the U.S. criminal justice system disenfranchises minorities while claiming to be color blind.

Mr. Bush is part of a task force of a handful of small Jewish groups, among them T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, working to draw the Jewish community’s attention to the issue.

“T’ruah views reforming mass incarceration and all that it entails as one of the growing domestic human rights concerns,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck, the group’s director of programs. “The challenge to the Jewish community for the anniversary of Freedom Summer is not just to rest on our laurels, but to ask ourselves what we’re going to do.”

For Ms. Zellner, the most important message of Freedom Summer is that change is possible. “You can do exactly what we did if you only get together and decide what your goals are,” she said. “We didn’t have a monopoly on brilliance or anything. Young people can change everything if they only want to.

“Old people are a great resource too. Old people don’t have to worry about their resumes.”

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