The Old Jim Crow, the New Jim Crow, Part One
by the Jewish Currents Editorial Board
Photos, unless otherwise indicated, by Mark Levy, from the Queens College/CUNY Civil Rights Archive.
ON THE BOOKS, THERE WAS THE FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT, in force since 1868, guaranteeing that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States… nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” There was the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote since 1870. There was Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that racial segregation in education violated the Constitution — and there was about to be a new Civil Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2nd, 1964, which would make segregation in all public facilities, nationwide, illegal.
Then there was the reality, especially in Mississippi — “a state sweltering… with the heat of oppression,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had said the previous year in his “I Have a Dream” speech. In the state’s five congressional districts, the black portion of the population ranged from 21 percent to 52 percent, yet blacks constituted under 3 percent of registered voters in three of the five and under 7 percent statewide, thanks to onerous and discriminatory voter registration “testing,” economic retaliation, and racist intimidation and violence by police, officials, and vigilantes. Mississippi’s segregated education system, meanwhile, graduated only 42 percent of white students from high school and only 7 percent of blacks, whose schools were so underfunded and inadequate that “any test of educational skills as a prerequisite to voting would necessarily discriminate,” according to a 1965 report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
Hard poverty was everywhere in Mississippi, and stretched back for generations; the state had been the poorest in the nation since the Civil War. The majority of blacks in Mississippi worked as farm laborers or as domestic workers, with typical wages of $3 per day. Labor unions did not exist. Imprisonment at hard labor was used by Mississippi’s authorities as a tool of social control of the black population. Efforts by black churches, activist groups, and national civil rights organizations to change these conditions were met with legal repression as well as terrorist violence by the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council, and the state police — while the federal government provided no protection.
INTO THIS ENVIRONMENT, IN THE SUMMER OF 1964, came more than seven hundred civil rights volunteers from the North, 90 percent of them white — and, by most estimates, at least a third of them Jewish. Of these, some were from left-wing families: Marilyn Lowen of Detroit, for example (who postponed coming to Mississippi until 1965), describes herself in the 2010 book, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Columbia University Press), as attending an I.L. Peretz kindershul (a secular Jewish school) and growing up “feeling that racism was insane, something to be gotten rid of…. From a very young age, as a Jew, I always felt my purpose was to be involved in fighting injustice, fighting for freedom… when I read biographies of Jewish women resistance fighters in Eastern Europe, I felt as if I knew them and as if I were there with them.”
The great majority of Jewish Freedom Summer volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 25, had been born during World War II, recalls Gail Falk at her website, and “some came from families immediately impacted by the Holocaust by losing relatives or having emigrated from Germany or Poland to escape Nazism. For many, America did not yet feel like a secure place for Jews… [and they] believed their status was closer to that of Negroes in the South than to the white Protestants who were in control of the South.” Others, Falk continues, “were motivated by the moral and ethical teachings of Judaism that emphasized the historic struggle for justice and saw parallels between the story of the Hebrews’ enslavement (and liberation) in Egypt and the Negro’s fight for freedom.”
RELIGIOUS OR NOT, STRONGLY IDENTIFIED AS JEWISH OR NOT, they would experience the summer of 1964 as the “exodus” of their lifetimes. Invited by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with the thought of shining a national spotlight on the horrors being perpetrated in Mississippi, the volunteers were screened and trained for a week at a college campus in Ohio before traveling south, where white officials and vigilantes were waiting and ready for this so-called “communist invasion.” SNCC’s trainers saw the young volunteers as “so naive, so vulnerable, so maddeningly certain of themselves,” writes Bruce Watson in Freedom Summer (Viking, 2010), that “the thought of throwing them into the hellhole of Mississippi terrified those who bore its bruises and bullet wounds…. Mississippi sheriffs, cops, and highway patrolmen already knew their names, their hometowns, their full descriptions… [and the volunteers] would be classified into two groups, ‘niggers and nigger-lovers.’”
Still they went, in two waves from Ohio, to give support to the hundreds of activists of COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations, a coalition of civil rights organizations that was trying to register black voters and create some three dozen “Freedom Schools” (on a budget of $2,000) in small, impoverished towns throughout the state. Eventually, more than a hundred doctors and other healthcare workers from the Medical Committee for Human Rights also came to provide care for the activists and the black communities supporting them. Volunteer lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and National Lawyers Guild provided legal services amid arrests and beatings. Thirty-six members of the United Federation of Teachers attended a Freedom School orientation session in Memphis, and then went to Hattiesburg, Mississippi and spread out to Freedom Schools across the state. A Caravan of Music brought folksingers south, including Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, and Julius Lester.
The National Council of Negro Women, at the instigation of Dorothy Height, its national president, and Polly Cowan, a Jewish supporter, organized a program, “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which for two summers surreptitiously brought interracial and interfaith teams of Northern women to Jackson, Mississippi, from where they spread out to civil rights sites across the state before returning to organize support at home. There were also ministers and rabbis who came to protest at courthouses, accompany voters to registration offices, and teach in Freedom Schools. (Already on site in Hattiesburg was Rabbi David Z. Ben-Ami, a child refugee from Nazi Germany who had brought his family to Mississippi in 1963 and was appointed to the Mississippi State Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights at the start of Freedom Summer. Ben-Ami would soon lose his contract at the local Temple B’Nai Israel because of his civil rights activism.)
To be continued.