From the Spring 2014 issue of Jewish Currents
The exploitation and oppression of African Americans have been defining features of our country’s history since the first black slaves were hauled ashore in the Virginia colony in 1619. Black servitude was a keystone of our country’s wealth for more than two centuries, and underpaid black labor expanded that wealth long after slavery was abolished. Today, cheap labor is hired overseas, or domestically mostly for agricultural and service work, and blacks have been replaced in those jobs, at least in part, by Spanish-speaking immigrants. The result is a large black “underclass,” mired in poverty and overseen by an American criminal justice system that justifies its bloated budgets through mass incarceration.
The tenacity of the black liberation struggle has also shaped America in fundamental ways. This was especially true of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, which catalyzed the feminist revolution, anti-war protest, Hispanic organizing, gay liberation, and the liberal ascendancy of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Alongside this “gift” of black political resistance has come cultural expression, from blues to jazz to hip-hop to slang to fashion to popular dance, that has repeatedly shaken our country free of deadening homogeneity. The motto chosen in 1957 for the mission of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference summed up the black liberation movement’s mission beautifully: “To save the soul of America.”
In general, Jews of older generations felt a kinship with African-American suffering and resistance more readily than young Jews do today. People fleeing pogroms, and still facing discrimination in employment and housing in the U.S., could easily recognize white supremacy as the twin of anti-Semitism. Jews came to northern cities simultaneously with black refugees from the Jim Crow South; Jewish businesses, as well as teachers and social workers, were often embedded in black communities; Jewish cultural innovators worked in many of the same idioms as black artistic pioneers. From this stew of interaction, Jews emerged as key supporters of the civil rights movement. While the black-Jewish relationship was never uncomplicated, there was a political bond between the two peoples in their quest for equal opportunity and an end to hateful discrimination and exclusion. This bond, and the social progress it achieved, helped cultivate an abiding progressive sensibility among Jews that has withstood challenges from the right for more than half a century.
A civil rights campaign that embodied that sensibility like no other was Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964, which the current issue of Jewish Currents celebrates with a fiftieth anniversary pictorial. Freedom Summer brought more than seven hundred northern college students to one of the South’s most savage zones of racist violence, voter repression, and enforced black poverty. At least a third of the young white people who joined the campaign were Jews — and two of them, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were murdered along with CORE activist James Chaney by Mississippi Ku Klux Klansmen on its very first day.
The Freedom Summer campaign was embraced widely by Jews up north as a “Let My People Go” cause, and young Jewish volunteers from both secular and synagogue backgrounds received moral support — laced with fear, of course — from their Jewish elders and communities. Mark Levy, a veteran of the campaign whose photographic archive at Queens College provided many of the images in our feature article, describes his motivation as a Freedom Summer volunteer simply enough: “My Jewish teachings and values made it feel like the right thing to do.” Levy also recalls in some detail, however, the falling-out between “Black Power” nationalists and Jewish liberal integrationists, which seriously fractured the civil rights alliance, leading Levy to “talk about my Jewish roots with less passion because the stories of alliances and struggles for social justice feel dimmer and longer ago.”
Yet the need for a strong civil rights alliance has not really vanished. In particular, the contemporary reality of race-based mass incarceration is more and more understood by a wide range of people of conscience (including the U.S. Attorney General) to be a “New Jim Crow,” a new form of racial control. Mass incarceration and its concomitant abuses — the use of solitary confinement as a form of torture, the withholding of voting and other rights from felons after their terms are served, the abysmal overcrowding of American prisons — are being protested by quite an assortment of activists groups, and we believe it is time for Jews to establish their presence, in the name of Jewish values, in that movement.
Our feature on Freedom Summer is not designed as an exercise in nostalgia, therefore, but to help the Jewish community recognize the continuity between Jim Crow, 1964 and the New Jim Crow, 2014. With that recognition comes the challenge to wrestle with our own deeply ingrained but deeply flawed perception of black men as potentially dangerous — and with that wrestling comes the chance to have our anti-racist Jewish sensibility renewed, and the black-Jewish alliance repaired and revitalized.