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3. Mark Levy
When I speak to students about why I went to Mississippi during “Freedom Summer ’64” to fight for civil rights, I tell them the first and most significant factor was that I am Jewish. My Jewish teachings and values made it feel like the right thing to do. Growing up in a Jewish home in the post-Holocaust 1940s and 1950s, I was taught that not only was discrimination against Jews bad, but against Negroes and others, too. If discrimination was tolerated against one group, my family taught, it could be turned against us next — so opposing racism was a practical as well as an ethical issue.
News about the first Negroes breaking the color line in baseball was discussed in my household with the same excitement as the news about Jews in the major leagues. The civil rights stories of the court fights against school segregation and the long-running Montgomery bus boycott signaled to me an optimistic option for a post-war America — in comparison to the grey flannel suits, suburban homes “built of ticky-tacky,” and the political fear of McCarthyism.
As I became involved in the civil rights movement, I was excited by the number of Jewish synagogues that organized their congregations to go to the 1963 March on Washington and the visible role played there by a number of rabbis. I felt comfortable, the next year, in approaching the synagogue where I had been a bar mitsve for books, materials, money, and support for Mississippi Freedom Summer — and they were freely given. I was proud when I arrived at orientation and saw that a large percentage of other volunteers were also Jewish.
I drew two very different sets of conclusions from the time I spent in Mississippi. On the positive side, I learned:
- Local people were the brave ones. Volunteers would return home; local families knew they would remain to face intimidation and retribution.
- Finding us places to stay, work, eat, and create communications and security systems took tremendous skills — “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” I still marvel at what it took to make that summer happen.
- Young people were in the lead. Most SNCC and CORE activists were in their teens and early twenties.
- I learned as much or more than I taught. Teaching by asking questions and engaging in a dialogue about how to make a better world, and learning how to understand each other and live and work together, were at the core of our Freedom Schools. My ideas about teaching were forever changed.
However, on the unexpected and disappointing side were experiences that showed me that not all Jews are liberal and committed to opposing discrimination. My wife and I, for example, tried to go to Jewish services at the synagogue in Meridian, Mississippi, in early July, 1964. We were turned away on the front steps by an angry Jewish woman who shouted: “We are Southerners first — you are not welcome here!” Two months later, in Atlantic City at the Democratic National Convention, influential liberal northern Jews and national Jewish organizations that had promised to back the Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the segregationist Mississippi state delegation reversed their positions under the arm-twisting of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.
In the later 1960s, new civil rights slogans and terms appeared: Black Power, Black Liberation, Black Nationalism. To me, they seemed to be reasonable and thoughtful (if angry) responses for aspirations that remained “a dream deferred” as black leaders were assassinated, movements for economic justice thwarted, legislation obstructed and unfunded, and court decisions unenforced. However, other Jewish friends and family felt threatened, put off by the anger, unsure how to be involved, or guilty for the advantages they enjoyed.
After Mississippi, I became a New York City school teacher in Harlem. I had watched my union, the UFT, move to the right under the leadership of Albert Shanker and away from hearing the angry voices of black and Latino parents unhappy with the quality of education in their neighborhoods. “Community Control” became a hope for improving their schools while “Defending the Contract” became the union’s slogan. Whatever was left of a Black-Jewish alliance came to a crashing end as a result of the emotion-laden 1968 “Ocean Hill-Brownsville” teachers’ union strike. Cries of “anti-Semitism” were hurled, and the organized Jewish community jumped to the side of the UFT and opposed community control.
There I was, a teacher, a Jew, an active union member, and an active civil rights supporter. My core values and identities were thrown into conflict. This was a challenging time for me, and probably ended my belief that there is something inherent or automatic in Judaism and Jewish history that guarantees Jewish support for civil rights and social justice struggles. I decided the UFT was wrong in going on strike.
Nowadays, the debate about Israel and its role in the world dominates the agenda of national Jewish organizations. I’ve been told that if I am not a Zionist, then I can’t properly call myself Jewish, and that if I don’t support everything that Israel does, I am a “self-hating anti-Semite.” Dare I respond with: What does it mean to be Jewish without a commitment to social justice?
When I’m asked now, at 75, what keeps me committed to a vision of social justice, I’m afraid I don’t answer that question as I used to. I talk about what I learned when I was 17 from my Puerto Rican, female class president about white male “privilege;” when I was 22, from a black college secretary about taking a walk in other people’s shoes; at 25, from a couple of older black women in Mississippi, who housed and fed young activists, about how courage, commitment, and leadership come in many forms; and more recently, at age 71, from a young, undocumented, woman from Mexico, who was my swimming lifeguard, about what her life was like without “papers,” about what ideals she expected her new country, America, to live by, and about the contradictions here that frustrate her.
I still talk about the Jewish roots of my early activism because I think it is important to show that all Jews are not rich businessmen; that somehow the light of social justice glows in our traditions; and that there are choices for all young people. Sadly, I talk about my Jewish roots with less passion because the stories of alliances and struggles for social justice feel dimmer and longer ago.
The positive memories of 1964 shine through in those snapshots I took in Mississippi and remind me of the joy, hope, work, and courage of all the blacks and whites who united that summer to try to make a better world — and to make America a more just country.
Mark Levy served as coordinator of the Meridian Freedom School during Freedom Summer. He is a retired social sciences teacher and worked for over thirty years in the labor movement. Levy has helped initiate a civil rights and activist archive at Queens College/CUNY, where most of the photographs in this article are to be found, and has worked with former Meridian Freedom School students and community activists to preserve and use their own movement’s history.
4. Larry Rubin
I was a SNCC organizer off and on between 1961 and ’65, first in Georgia and then in Mississippi. It never occurred to me not to go South. My parents transmitted to me their belief that a better, more just world was possible. This belief lasted longer than their membership in the Communist Party. It was rooted in their Jewishness. I grew up with Jewish Life and Jewish Currents. I went to an IWO (International Workers Order) Yiddish shule.
When I told my parents I was going to work for SNCC, I repeated all the things they’d taught me: what a mentsh does is fight for justice; the Jewish people will never be safe from disaster unless discrimination against any group is impossible; if African Americans in the South could vote, they would vote out of office the Southern racist reactionaries who dominated the government.
My parents agreed with everything I said, but told me that actually doing something wasn’t worth the risk. The theories, the talk, the political songs I grew up with were beautiful and correct, but they were meant to be just that: theories, talk and songs. Talking the talk was great; walking the walk, not so much.
But South I went.
SNCC work was tedious. We canvassed from house to house in groups, preferably with both black and white canvassers. At first, we generally made small-talk: The weather’s been hot, the church picnic is coming up. The second time, if trust had developed, we spoke about registering to vote, or joining the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We encouraged black tenant farmers to get together to vote in elections for members of their county Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Committee. Among other things, these committees determined who would get how much in subsidies for planting — or not planting — cotton.
Through canvassing, I learned I was white. Growing up, I’d always been encouraged to discover my own individuality. But in Mississippi, most everybody had to fit into a category developed in the Master-Slave culture, and my category was “white” — even though, if anything, I thought of myself as “Jewish.”
Local African-American leaders were very generous in helping people of diverse backgrounds work together despite cultural differences, but to the average person we visited while canvassing, I was . . . well, white. I lacked the skills that might have helped me better overcome what my whiteness meant to local people. The best I could do was stay mostly silent while a black canvasser did the talking. This demonstrated that white and black people could work together without the white person being in charge. I never had a problem with this, because I was never in charge. I was strictly a foot soldier the entire time I was in the South.
The racist segregationists called us “outside agitators.” We might have been outsiders, but we did no agitation. Local community leaders at mass meetings did. A large part of our work was to arrange for cars to carry people to these meetings.
I’m proud of the fact that I helped workers at a brick-making factory take the steps to form a union. During the campaign, one of the Marshall County deputy sheriffs who had arrested me several times told me that his brother worked at the plant and needed the union. He said the twenty or so whites would vote with the eighty black workers for a union.
Still, in retrospect, I realize that for most of the time I worked in the South, I didn’t have the skills, wisdom, or knowledge to do much good as an organizer.
On the other hand, the African Americans with whom I worked showed me what real courage and persistence in the face of terror and violence looked like. If a family lost their home as a result of trying to register to vote, someone in the community would give them a place to live, although it was very dangerous to do so. Local people shared their homes with SNCC organizers, and if “night riders” threatened to attack, they protected us with rifles. They proved that if people stick together, they could make change. I was inspired by their example to spend most of the last fifty years working for a better society through the labor movement.
Day-to-day life in Mississippi was controlled by taboos. If you were a black man and did not doff your hat to whites, you could be beaten. If you were black and tried to register to vote or participate in any of the activities we canvassed for, you could lose your job, be put off the land you sharecropped, or be beaten, burned out, or killed. Yet over the years, black people — sometimes whole families — fought against oppression. They tried to register to vote again and again. SNCC did not create the struggle for the right to vote, we merely supported it.
The authorities continually harassed us. I was beaten on the street, run off a plantation at shotgun point, arrested any number of times on charges like “suspicion” of stealing the shirt I was wearing or the car I was driving. In Belzoni, Mississippi, I was put in a room where deputies and cops threatened to hang me. They said, “We haven’t killed us a Hebe in a long time.”
Many of the volunteers that came for Freedom Summer did not, at least at first, fully understand the danger we were in. They had courage that comes only from youth and inexperience. Not me. I knew from growing up in a leftwing family during the McCarthy period that “they” were out to get us. I stayed scared the entire time I worked in the South. It felt like a tight knot in my stomach that would not go away.
The local people with whom we worked had a deep religious faith that helped keep them going and helped them sleep at night. I had political analysis. It kept me awake.
I never spoke about my leftist, non-religious Jewishness. I believed that if I did, black folks might marginalize me. As it turned out, I was wrong. When Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland gave a speech on the Senate floor presenting “evidence” that Communists were behind “the so-called Civil Rights Movement,” he mentioned me at some length. Soon after, the newspaper in Marshall County, where I worked, carried my photo under a headline “Local Civil Rights Worker has Communist Background.” I thought for sure that I would be ostracized by the black community. But to them, Eastland was just spouting words. They really did not care what I was, as long as I was working in the freedom fight. In fact, some people found it easier to look beyond my white skin when they saw that Eastland had attacked me. Eastland, they knew, was just talking the talk. Despite all my weaknesses as an organizer, I was walking the walk.
Larry Rubin has worked in the labor movement as an organizer, media and public relations specialist, speechwriter, publications editor, and political advocate for forty-five years. He was also a reporter for the Dayton Daily News and served four terms on the Takoma Park, Maryland, City Council. He was a speechwriter for the National Education Association and the U.S. Department of Education. He also served as a staff member of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and was part of a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania project preparing neighborhood communities for school busing. Rubin has been active in Machar, a secular humanist Jewish group, and was its Sunday-school principal.