At approximately 10 p.m. on Sunday, June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers associated with the Congress of Racial Equality – Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney – were released from a jail in Philadelphia, Miss. Their arrest earlier that day had been strange enough – Chaney for driving 35 miles per hour in a 30-mile zone, and Schwerner and Goodman for “investigation.” Their release at such a late hour must have appeared to them even stranger.
This was the so-called Freedom Summer, a months-long effort to register black voters in a state that, until then, had never allowed a black person to vote. Strange events had become the norm.
Within a half-hour of their release, the two Jewish young men from New York and the young black man from nearby Meridian were dead. Their bodies were recovered 44 days later, buried under 12 feet of dirt in an earthen dam.
Keeping the faith – One religious perspective on issues of the day Over the next 45 years, only one person would be tried in a Mississippi state court for causing their deaths. He was an 80-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman, Edgar Ray Killen, and he was convicted of manslaughter, not murder. Seven people did serve federal sentences for violating the civil rights of the three youths.
That was then. Today, a black man is president of the United States. And just one month ago, on Tuesday, May 19, the town that was at the heart of what came to be known as the “Mississippi Burning” case (the name given to it by the FBI) elected its first black mayor, James A. Young.
The battle for civil rights in America is not over, but victory is closer than ever – and Jews have been at the forefront from the start. Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Freedom Summer campaign. Nearly half the country’s civil rights lawyers during that period were Jewish.
The iconic photograph of the era also illustrates this connection. It shows Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., in March of 1965.
Jewish ties to the civil rights movement go all the way back to its founding. In 1909, the NAACP was formed by W.E.B. Dubois and a number of prominent whites, including the civil rights advocate Henry Moskowitz, the philanthropist Julius Rosenthal, the social activist Lillian Wald, and Rabbis Emil Hirsch and Stephen Wise. Jews also helped found the Urban League and CORE.
One reason we Jews were so involved, of course, is that the civil rights battle was as much about our rights as anyone else’s.
True, America was a land of opportunity for the Jews who fled persecution in Europe, but it was also at times a frightening place with Jew-hatreds of its own. There were signs all over America that made that clear. One particular kind of sign was Leo Frank hanging from a tree outside an Atlanta jail in August 1915, lynched by the Ku Klux Klan.
The other signs were more common: “No Jews, blacks, or Catholics allowed.” “No Jews, blacks, or women allowed.” At the University of Southern California, a bastion of liberalism today, there were signs on campus that read, “No Jews, blacks, or Orientals allowed.”
The common thread for all of the signs was “No Jews or blacks.” Everything else was regional.
Going into the 1950s and 1960s, with the horrors of the Shoah fresh in people’s minds, Jews nevertheless had made little progress on the civil rights front. Non-Jews would cluck in disgust over what the Nazis did, but could not see anything wrong in their own Jew-hatred.
Try getting a hotel room in Tuxedo Park, or moving to Murray Hill, or joining the City Club. Try getting a job in the banking industry or a seat on a corporate board. Try getting into a good college or graduate school.
For Jews, as for blacks, the doors remained closed.
That helps to explain why we were so much a part of the civil rights movement.
Jewish support for social justice runs far deeper than self-interest, however. It is at the heart of who we are as a people. Religious or secular, over the millennia Jews were raised to believe that all humankind were created equal, endowed by the Creator with one characteristic above all others: All were created in His image.
We also were raised to believe that only one human being was created in the beginning and from this one being all others emerged. Why? Says the Mishnah in the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, “for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than yours.'”
This lesson is brought home in a debate between Rabbi Akiva and his student, Ben Azzai, recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud tractate N’darim (9:4).
“Rabbi Akiva says: ‘Love your fellow as yourself’ [Leviticus 19:18] is the great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says: ‘This is the record of Adam’s line’ [Genesis 5:1] is a greater principle of the Torah.”
On the surface, Ben Azzai’s comment makes no sense. “Love your fellow” clearly is a principle; “this is the record of Adam’s line” just as clearly is not.
Yet Ben Azzai is correct. His verse declares that all humankind have the same ancestor. Not only are all humans equal to one another, all are related to one another. All are brothers and sisters.
The lesson that all people must be treated with dignity and respect is also built into our origins as a people. Jacob’s sons had developed a keen sense of their own importance and a total disregard for the welfare of others. Their â€“ our – enslavement in Egypt was meant to teach them – us – how not to treat others. The Exodus and attendant appointment as God’s “kingdom of priests” were meant to bring that lesson to the world through us.
That Jews were so much a part of Freedom Summer and the civil rights movement, then, should be no surprise.
What should be a surprise – and not a pleasant one – is how that which we fought for and believed over several millennia may have been diluted as a Jewish value in a mere 45 years.
Those of us who remember Freedom Summer probably still understand the Jewish need to promote social justice, but one has to wonder whether our children do, and perhaps more important, whether our grandchildren do. Do the names Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney have any meaning for them? Do they even know what Freedom Summer was or how it changed the world in which we live? Do they even understand why some people would put their lives on the line for the rights of other people to register to vote?
We are the People Israel. Never should we forget that or fail to act on it when called upon to do so. Never, however, must we forget that before we were the House of Jacob we were the Children of Adam.