From my adopted hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, I’ve been thinking about Freedom Summer.
Now that we are a month away from the fiftieth anniversary of that historic summer, many people are recalling and taking action, planning and preparing. Many of today’s Jewish activists are writing articles, developing programs and setting action goals in honor of the large Jewish volunteer contingent that traveled from Northern cities to spend their summer fighting for civil rights in Mississippi 50 years ago.
I’ve been working on plans for the commemoration here in Jackson and am enamored by the vast collection of archival material available. Those involved with the movement that summer risked their lives to promote civil rights and they volunteered knowing they were going to make history.
Luckily for people like me, they were great collectors. And even luckier, dedicated archivists have put countless hours into digitizing the collections. The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), and perhaps more surprisingly the Wisconsin Historical Society, both have enormous and well organized (easily searchable!) collections available online. Here are a few of my favorite photos and documents from the USM collection, which all feature Hattiesburg volunteers.
There is a sense of community and camaraderie among the diverse volunteers in these scenes.
Volunteers learned to rely on each other and worked hard to build community in their temporary camps throughout the state. I see familiar joyful, pensive and exhausted looks that are common among the faces of today’s social activists. The work is not finished and similar efforts are still occurring in church basements and community centers in Mississippi, right here, right now.
We are happy people are commemorating the important work of local and national volunteers, shining a spotlight on the power of working together for change. But we also know what many people still think about Mississippi today. So this summer we’ve got a different idea.
Instead of reading about the work of Jewish volunteers 50 years ago, we want you to come here and create your own stories. We believe learning from Civil Rights veterans and contemporary social justice activists here in Mississippi and from throughout the nation, against the backdrop of this complicated, challenging, and important state, is a great opportunity to highlight what Mississippi has to offer.
Interested? Awesome, you’re my kind of blog reader. Fill our this interest form on our website here and we’ll be in touch about how to get you here! See you at the Freedom Summer 50th anniversary, when once again, Jewish activists will join hands with our neighbors to make things better.
Have you seen this image yet?
If not, can you guess which state it may be from? Believe it or not, this is a Mississippi initiative.
This glorious logo has been flooding my Facebook feed for weeks and is now getting the great press coverage it deserves – from local news outlets like the Jackson Free Press, and also from the likes of Time Magazine and some Posts—Washington and Huffington.
After the Mississippi House and Senate passed SB 2681—the controversial “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell’s Bakery and a self-proclaimed “white, heterosexual, conservative Christian male,” decided to take a stand.
“The examples people always use (when talking about how businesses could discriminate) always involve weddings and a florist or a baker (refusing service to a gay or lesbian couple), since those are the ones that have probably happened somewhere,” Moore said to the Jackson Free Press. “I thought it was ridiculous, and I wanted to get the message out that we are not discriminatory, and that I want to sell my product to as many people as will buy it.”
Since then, hundreds of stickers have been printed and put up in storefront windows across the state. The campaign is getting so much attention that the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical organization, is fighting back. This article from the Huffington Post quotes the AFA saying this is “not really a buying campaign, but it’s a bully campaign… carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture.”
In counterpoint, the Huffington Post author points out that those who agree with the AFA might want to consider this: “…bigots in Mississippi are still free to discriminate, but they do at a disadvantage to competitors who don’t… Profit is a great motivator for tolerance.”
It’s this last line that got me thinking historically about tolerance among merchants. As I’ve written in the past, many Jewish immigrants to Mississippi at the turn of the century worked their way up from peddlers to become merchants in towns across the state. A majority of these merchants differentiated themselves from other businesses through their relationships with the black community. Jewish merchants across the South, especially the ones that owned lower-end dry goods stores (of whom there were many) relied heavily on black customers.
And in this relationship, there was a definite distinction between Jews and other whites. Jewish store owners had the reputation of treating their black customers far better than other white merchants. Jews were more willing to extend credit to blacks, and to use terms of respect when speaking to them. Certainly, there was an economic incentive to treat their customers well, but as one civil rights leader in Mississippi noted, Jewish merchants were considered “the better of the white element that you had dealings with.” In her memoir The Jew Store, Stella Suberman recalls how her father hired the first black store clerk in their small Tennessee town in the 1930s. In the store owned by Edward Cohen’s family in Jackson, clerks called their blacks customers “Mr.” or “Mrs,” which was unusual at the time. As Cohen notes: “We observed blacks’ humanity, if not their equality.”
But years later during the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s, the pressure to conform to segregation laws was more intense. When city leaders were not willing to integrate, Jewish merchants could be caught in the middle between movement sit-ins and white resistance. While they may have held progressive ideals, Jewish merchants were worried about the impact joining the movement would have on their businesses, and how speaking up could potentially endanger them and their families.
Only after integration became inevitable, or the cost of continued segregation became too high, did they change their practices—but they did often take the lead in this process. In Memphis in the 1960s, a handful of Jewish department store owners organized meetings with other merchants to discuss the peaceful integration of their stores. Jack Goldsmith, owner of Goldsmith’s, and Mel Grinspan of the Shainberg’s store chain, led this effort, which was designed to have all the stores integrate together so none of them could be singled out for retribution.
In both instances, profit was a main motivator, but at different points in history a merchant’s practice of discrimination could either be bad or good for business. It’s why I find this “Religious Freedom” bill so dangerous. We’ve seen what happens when discrimination becomes acceptable and profitable, and the situation that it puts merchants in. Taking a look back helps frame the fight we are fighting today as social change threatens the sacred status quo.
The “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling” campaign is trying to point out that in Mississippi, in 2014, discrimination is bad for business. This law is bad for the people in the state and those thinking of doing business in the state. And twisting the logic behind something as important as “religious freedom” of the majority to enforce discrimination against a minority is just another level of how disturbing it is.
Having lived in this state for six years, I’ve learned that the loudest voices are often assumed to be the majority. It was some loud voices who got the “Religious Freedom Bill” passed—but now, some other loud voices are taking the megaphone—loud, proud business owners who will sell to anyone who’s buying, and are taking a bright-stickered-sign against discrimination.
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Jackson, Mississippi has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country. This Saturday, 70,000(!) people will line the streets downtown, cheering for beads and dancing to the sounds of marching bands as dozens of floats ride down the streets.
What is inspiring all the hoopla? Well, it isn’t a large Irish population. I mean, I’ve been to the Southie parade in Boston, I’ve seen a lot of Irish people with a lot of Irish pride. Jackson isn’t Boston. Don’t get me wrong, there is a wonderful Irish community in Mississippi that puts on a world-class Celtic Fest every fall, and Fenian’s, the local Irish pub, it a main spot for St. Patty’s celebrations after the parade, but the size of the parade is not representative of the size of the community.
The Jackson parade is not an specifically ethnic celebration, but 30 years ago a small caravan of revelers were inspired by the American tradition of marking this particular holiday with public festivity. They started a small parade, which has grown more into Jackson’s own version of Mardi Gras than a genuine St. Patrick’s celebration… BUT it’s scheduled to fall on St. Pat’s weekend, NOT Mardi Gras, and thus voila: I can totally use it for my segue into Irish immigrants in the mid 19th century… and some Jewish connections!
The O’Tux Society,
Being Irish in America wasn’t always so festive. Irish immigrants were once one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the country when the Irish famine in the 1850s sent a massive wave of immigrants into Northern cities. In her chapter in Ethnic Heritage of Mississippi, Celeste Ray writes, “Whereas in northern cities large numbers of Irish immigrants faced discrimination and banded together into their own communities, Irish immigrants to Mississippi came in smaller numbers and assimilated into southern culture.”
Sound familiar? It’s important to note that like Jewish immigrants, through assimilation the Irish were able to build successful relationships and businesses in the area. By the time Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind in 1936, the Irish had become such an accepted part of the American South that it was not considered unusual for plantation owner Gerald O’Hara to be an Irish Catholic. Their traditions, like St. Patrick’s Day, became a part of American popular culture.
I’ve written a lot about cultural connections and Jewish outreach in the blog. Many of the communities in the South sponsor events that invite their neighborhoods to join in Jewish celebrations like a Hannukah party, Passover Seder, Sisterhood Bazzar or Deli Luncheon. Everyone who comes gets a positive, and usually delicious, Jewish cultural experience and makes connections to their own heritage. Even the best of Purim parties don’t get quite as rowdy at a St. Patty’s parade, but the sentiment is similar.
So this Saturday, with my green bows, beads, and beers, I will be reminded of the Irish community who found a home in this country and show my appreciation for the culture they brought with them that inspires these types of community celebrations today.
I love getting to share my Jewish traditions with friends here – but this Nice Jewish Girl also loves getting to share in other cultural traditions, and be part of celebrating the glorious fusion of cultures coming together. And there’s just nothing quite like St. Patrick’s Day in Jackson, Mississippi.
Happy St. Patty’s Day, y’all!