There is something about the Mississippi Delta. Known as “the most southern place on earth,” the Delta region is a complicated place with an often tortured history. Last week, the ISJL History Department visited the region to learn how this flat, alluvial flood plain, once home to the most fertile cotton growing soil in the country, transformed America. For a long time, cotton was king in the Delta, as primarily white plantation owners employed black sharecroppers to plant, grow, and harvest the cash crop.
From the 1870s to the 1970s, the Delta’s fortunes rose and fell with the price of cotton. The Delta was the richest part of the state, but was also the site of tremendous poverty. These contradictions helped give rise to the blues, a style of music created in the Delta in the late 19th century and exported to the world in the 20th. One of our stops was Dockery Farm, a large cotton plantation that was once home to 2,000 sharecroppers, including blues legends Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House. Many have argued that the blues musical style was invented and first passed around on this 10,000 acre plantation.
Because cotton was so labor intensive, and that labor was provided by African Americans, the Delta’s population became majority black. But due to segregation and disfranchisement, whites were able to maintain political power in the Delta. But there was one exception: Mound Bayou. A small hamlet in the heart of the Delta, Mound Bayou was established as a black freedom town by founder Isaiah T. Montgomery, a former slave, in 1887. In Mound Bayou, blacks voted and did not experience Jim Crow. It was a safe haven for blacks, an oasis in a region where white supremacy ruled.
In Mound Bayou, we met with Dr. Eulah Peterson, the president of the local historical society, who spoke about the important role the town’s residents played in the struggle for civil rights. This struggle was sparked by a terrible incident in the Delta that captured the attention of the entire world. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and brutally murdered after supposedly whistling at a white female clerk at Bryant’s Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. His mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral, letting everyone see the grotesque condition of his body, drew attention to the brutality of white supremacy and inspired a movement to change the South. In Glendora, we toured a museum that tells this troubling but important story.
In nearby Ruleville, we visited a memorial to one of the Delta’s most important civil rights leaders, Fannie Lou Hamer. Ms. Hamer was a 44-year old sharecropper who was thrown off her plantation in 1962 after she tried to register to vote. She then became a movement leader, inspiring her younger colleagues with her plain-spoken eloquence and commitment to the cause. In her hometown where she was once vilified, Hamer is now honored with a memorial park. Next to her grave is a newly installed life-size statue of the activist.
While we were visiting the memorial, a police car pulled up, driven by a white officer, and two African American women got out of the back. Like us, the women were visitors to Ruleville, and the police chief had met them downtown and offered to take them to see the statue, the town’s most prized historic site. Such a scene would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. In the usual story of the Delta, little mention is made of Jews, who settled in the region starting in the late 19th century. Jews were always a tiny percentage of the Delta’s population. They did not work as sharecroppers and were rarely plantation owners. They were merchants, setting up shop in countless Delta towns, many of which were little more than wide places in the road. They established congregations and built synagogues in the Delta’s larger towns, in places like Clarksdale, Greenville, Greenwood, and Cleveland. As the Delta has declined economically, its Jewish community has shrunk. Today, there are three small congregations left.
In Greenwood, we met with Gail Goldberg of Congregation Ahavath Rayim. The traditional congregation, which once had a full-time rabbi and a flourishing religious school, is now down to nine people. They meet for lay-led services once a month, but still fill their sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah, when extended family and friends from around the country come to the Delta to help the congregation carry on its traditions.
Driving through the Delta, you think a lot about what used to be there: thriving market towns with several Jewish-owned stores; cotton fields ringed by sharecropper shacks; white elected officials thwarting the efforts of blacks to vote. Now, many of these small towns have little or no commerce, mechanical cotton pickers have ended the sharecropping system and you are just as likely to see soybeans growing as cotton, and most Delta towns have black elected officials. While the Delta has been transformed over the last several decades, as you drive by its farms and swamps, you realize that the past is never far behind.
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was created in 1956 to fight against racial integration. An arm of Mississippi’s state government, the commission investigated the efforts of civil rights groups and activists who posed a threat to the “Mississippi way of life.” When the commission was formally disbanded in 1977, the state sealed its records for fifty years. But a lawsuit sponsored by the ACLU eventually forced the state to open the records to researchers in 1998.
The Sovereignty Commission papers offer a unique look into the state’s efforts to combat the forces of racial progress. But they also offer moments of comic relief, such as when the commission sent two of its investigators to spy on the 1960 regional B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) convention at the Sun-N-Sand Motel in Biloxi.
A man named N.C. Wingo of Jackson had contacted officials at the Sovereignty Commission and informed them about the meeting, accusing BBYO of being a secretive radical subversive group. According to declassified documents, officials at the Sovereignty Commission had never heard of BBYO and sent two of their top investigators to spy on this convention.
The investigators’ six-page report manages to be both chilling and humorous at the same time. The manager of the Sun-N-Sand led the investigators to a spot where they could secretly eavesdrop and watch the proceedings. Anyone who has ever attended or chaperoned a Jewish youth group event can picture what the report describes: “For the first several minutes, there was so much noise that we could not distinguish anything that was being said…these youth sang songs and a general party atmosphere prevailed.” The investigators added, “we could observe nothing or hear nothing that indicated that they were advocating subversion, integration or anything of a communistic nature.” Eventually, the agents realized that the meeting was likely just “a group of Jewish kids…with no intentions of doing anything other than having a good time.” They even admitted that the kids seemed better behaved than the average group of teenagers. Nevertheless, they stayed through the entire convention to see if they could overhear anything that was “detrimental to our form of government.”
The group consisted of 300 young Jews between the ages of 14 and 18 from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. The investigators acquired a partial list of conference participants, and also took copies of all the pamphlets and literature that was distributed during the meeting, which they pored over for any sign of radicalism. Apparently, the bulletin of the Bluff City BBG (B’nai B’rith Girls) chapter from Memphis contained a few suspicious articles. One reported that the group had celebrated United Nations Day (a suspect organization from the perspective of the Sovereignty Commission). The bulletin also reported that the group held a program on the topic of intermarriage, though the investigators noted that this referred to religious and not racial intermarriage, and that the girls had concluded that they would not date non-Jews.
The commission agents concluded that the group offered no threat to segregation, though they did admit that for the thirty-minute minyan held each morning they were unable to observe or listen to the proceedings. As the agent reported, “I am very unfamiliar with this organization and the Jewish religion. I have no idea what this ‘Minion’ is, but I do know that they held it in small groups of approximately ten…in the private rooms of individuals at the motel.” While this daily small group meeting seemed suspicious to the agents, they could find no clear evidence of subversion during the BBYO meeting.
This Sovereignty Commission report raises several interesting issues. The first is the absurd nature of the assignment and the “keystone cops” aspect of the Sovereignty Commission. BBYO was certainly not a major player in the civil rights movement. Yet, the national organization of B’nai B’rith was on record as supporting the movement. In 1956, the president of B’nai B’rith urged all members to support desegregation as a human rights issue. And the B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was, and remains, an outspoken opponent of racial prejudice.
What is especially notable is that this report seems to be more the exception than the rule. I have not been able to find any other example of a Sovereignty Commission investigation of a Jewish organization, despite the fact that several Mississippi rabbis were outspoken supporters of racial equality. In fact, Mississippi Jews make relatively few appearances in the commission files. Many southern Jews feared that Jewish civil rights workers from the North would threaten the acceptance southern Jews enjoyed. But as the Sovereignty Commission files indicate, Mississippi’s white supremacist government made key distinctions between local Jews and “outside agitators.”
Except for that time they spied on BBYO.
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This past Thursday, my wife and I got up early, packed our car with trunks, suitcases, plastic drawers, and sleeping bags, and drove our two daughters to the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. Actually, at first we stopped outside the gates to wait in line with a hundred or so other cars. The “gate opening” tradition is a long one at Jacobs. People get there up to three hours early and wait in 95 degree heat. The kids walk up and down the rural road reconnecting with old friends from summers past. Many of the parents who are Jacobs alumni do the same.
Finally, at 11 am, the gates are opened, we receive our cabin assignments, and we help move our kids into their bunks and cubbies. As soon as we help them unpack, we are encouraged to hit the road, so the “magic” of camp can start.
I suspect this experience is quite common for parents who send their kids to summer camp. But there is something about Jacobs Camp that makes it rather unique. For many of the kids “walking the line” on this hot summer morning, the friends they reunite with make up most if not all of their Jewish social life. My two daughters are the only Jewish kids in their classes at school, and most all of their friends at home are non-Jewish. In places like Jackson, Mississippi, where we live, and other places like Hot Springs, Arkansas, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, where many Jacobs campers come from, this is not uncommon. Each summer, my daughters look forward to experiencing the immersive Jewish social environment of the camp. For the past 43 years, Jacobs Camp has helped make sure that Jewish kids in the Deep South become Jewish adults, not something we can take for granted down here.
This function is no accident. In fact, it was the central reason the camp was created in the 1960s. Jewish parents from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and western Tennessee decided that such a camp would help provide a desperately needed Jewish peer group for their kids, many of whom lived in small, isolated communities. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, to which most congregations in the region belonged, did not support the plan, fearing that the region’s Jewish population was too small to support a camp. But the small Jewish population was precisely the point for the camp! Once the congregations in the region raised the money and broke ground, the Union agreed to take ownership of Jacobs as part of its national network of camps.
No other camp has to attract anywhere near the same percentage of Jewish kids in residing in its region to fill its beds (nearly 30%!). The Henry S. Jacobs Camp, named for the former executive director of Temple Sinai in New Orleans who died while the camp was being developed, was truly a grassroots effort of the region’s Jewish families. Because of this, there is a pride of ownership and a strong sense of connection to it.
Our forebears built the camp with the dream of providing a Jewish environment for the next generations of Jews in the Deep South. My children are now part of that generation. While much has changed in the Jewish South over the past 43 years, the challenge of raising Jewish children in an overwhelmingly Christian environment with little in the way of a Jewish peer group remains. And so each summer we continue the ritual of labeling shirts and shorts, pulling trunks out of the attic, packing the car, and walking up and down the line, eagerly waiting for the gates to open.
Do you have memories of going to summer camp growing up?