As I began the long trek down to Mississippi a few weeks ago, I found my mind constantly wandering into the past. And no, I wasn’t thinking back to my prior semester of college or fun times with friends. I was reflecting on exactly fifty years ago: the summer of 1964.
Better known today as “Freedom Summer,” this was a transformative moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Hundreds of volunteers descended on the state of Mississippi to focus national attention on the horrors of segregation; they came to establish “Freedom Schools” and register African Americans to vote. Most of the volunteers were white college students just like myself. And over half of them were Jewish.
Since moving to Jackson and beginning my work as a Museum Intern with the ISJL, I find myself thinking about the many parallels between my own current journey and the experiences of young, white, Jewish students fifty years ago.
Why did they decide to come to Mississippi? How did Southern Jews view them once they got here? What challenges did they face while pursuing their work? While I continue to have more experiences in this state, the enduring legacies of history become more and more real to me. It has been so exciting to retrace the footsteps of many of these Freedom Summer veterans.
One of my most memorable experiences so far has been attending the 50th Commemorative Memorial Service for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. These three Freedom Summer volunteers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while registering black voters and investigating the firebombing of Mt. Zion Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the very same place the service was held. Besides the strong sense of place that I already felt that day, I was surrounded by the living history of the summer of 1964.
In addition to many lifelong residents of Neshoba County (many whom attended the Freedom Schools or could recall volunteers coming to their homes in attempt to register their families to vote), prominent civil rights activists such as Congressman John Lewis, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Bob Moses, Rita Schwerner, and Dave Dennis were present. I had goose bumps as I bore witness to how far our nation has come, while still realizing how the struggle continues today, particularly when it comes to voting rights and education. The very faces associated with the movement, profiled in documentaries, touched directly by this fight.
This week, I am continuing this journey at the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50 events. We have been working hard to create supplemental programs for reflection on the legacy of Jewish volunteers during Freedom Summer, and I am so excited to meet Jewish veterans like Heather Booth, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Lew Zuchman. I know that it will be a powerful gathering of younger and older generations; together we will exchange ideas and demonstrate how Jewish activism continues to thrive. I cannot wait to hear their stories and create new ones together.
There’s a lot we’re thankful for at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. We are thankful for the work we get to do. We are thankful for the wonderful region in which we get to do it. We are thankful for partners like MyJewishLearning.com that help us connect with even more of you throughout the year. The list goes on and on – and throughout Chanukah, we’ll be adding candles to our menurkey to shine the light on our thanksgiving:
Tonight, we light the first candle for COMMUNITY. Like us on Facebook to keep up with our candles all this week, and tonight let us wish you a very HAPPY CHANUKAH, HAPPY THANKSGIVING, and yes, for once-and-only-once tomorrow: HAPPY THANKSGIVUKKAH!
As many people know, I’ll be leaving my post at the ISJL next week to pursue a Ph.D. in American Studies. The last four years have been amazing for me, personally, professionally and academically, and I know I’m going to miss the city of Jackson and the ISJL office.
My last big project here has been a series of three short videos about Jewish life in Ashland, Kentucky, which were commissioned by the Kaplan Simons Family Foundation. I’m proud and excited to share these videos today:
Huge thanks to all of the participants, the families who shared photographs with me and especially the Boyd County Public Library, where many of the interviews were conducted.