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.
My husband and I recently journeyed from New Orleans to Israel—a first trip for him, an always-sacred return for me. On our El Al return flight, seated near us was an older gentleman. We briefly noticed him when boarding the plane; he smiled and so did we, thinking little of the encounter beyond the fleeting thought that he could be anyone’s sweet grandfather.
As everyone began to settle in, my husband noticed the numbers tattooed on the older man’s arm, and pointed them out to me.
I should mention now that on this return flight, there were also dozens of Birthright Israel kids, coming home from their trip. One of the Birthright girls was seated next to the old man, and began to ask him some questions. This man opened up to her, and told his story…and as he did we moved closer to hear it firsthand ourselves.
Encounters like this are far and few between now, as the very last of our survivors are elderly. This inspiring man was very proud that at 16 years old, he had worked hard, held on, and was lucky enough to survive Auschwitz. After the war, he lived in Israel for many years and then eventually moved to the States where he settled and raised his family. His story has been recorded by Steven Spielberg and is part of the Yad Vashem exhibit.
During our trip, we had spent a day at Yad Vashem, and I felt so deeply grateful that this place existed to tell this painful part of our history in the first person. I wondered if our next generations would be able to truly understand the sacrifices that our people made, simply for being Jewish. Men and women, like the survivor now seated just a few plane seats away from us.
During the course of that eleven hour journey, word spread that a survivor was on the flight, and my heart swelled as I watched the Birthright kids each take turns to hear this man’s story. He was patient and kind as he told it over and over again, clearly understanding his “obligation,” and I could see in their eyes as they listened attentively that this next generation clearly understood the privilege of hearing his story firsthand as much as I did. I was just as captivated by watching “our” kids as I was hearing his story.
His survival is our own.
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This month I made a big move. After a year spent in Jerusalem, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve as the first ISJL Community Engagement Fellow. It’s a two year commitment, and a big adventure. The timing of my move also coincides with the anniversary of a pretty momentous event in Mississippi’s history: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In reading more about the courageous volunteers that traveled to Mississippi that summer, I am struck by the similarities I’ve felt traveling to Mississippi this year. I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Portland for college. A week ago, I drove from Arizona to Mississippi. It was the first time I set foot on Southern soil. I knew relatively little about the history of the South, and even less about the culture. I am grappling to understand the complexities of race and class relations and issues in Jackson. As a young, white, middle-class Jewish woman, I felt strange taking a community engagement position in a community that was not my own. Throughout my life, I’ve felt a passion to address inequalities in my own communities. I kept asking myself “why move to Mississippi to continue this work?”
I fear that in community engagement work, good intentions can easily be misconstrued as a foreigner entering a community, and helping, because he or she knows what’s best for that community. I know that I don’t know what’s best for people I will be in contact with in the future, and want to be vocal about that. I’m not coming to save the day, privilege in tow. I’m here to become part of a team, to listen, and to learn.
Fifty years ago, over 1,000 Northern volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The majority of them were young and white (and a significant amount were Jewish). There are a lot of difficult, and amazing, things wrapped up in this fact- a large amount of young, white Northerners coming to the South to help register and empower African Americans. People coming to serve a community that was not theirs. Even with the best intentions, I fear that in such a situation sometimes we have expectations and assumptions regarding the people we are serving. Sometimes the world that we want to help doesn’t greet us the way we expect. When we do work that we are passionate about, it’s amazing to be validated by those whom we help. But sometimes it isn’t easy to give that validation, and the hardest part is asking why.
I am in no way trying to lessen the incredible thing that these brave young men and women did. Quite the contrary, the memory of these volunteers inspires me moving forward with my job. I am humbled by the Jewish history and heritage of service.
As a stranger coming to this place, I am reminded of the mitzvah to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger into our midst. I don’t want to do that—not in this instance. I am the stranger, right now, but I don’t want the community I live and work in to be a strange one. I don’t want to view the work that young men and women did 50 years ago as welcoming the stranger into their world. My goal is to serve this community as an insider, to find commonalities, to love it as my own.
I want to give gratitude to the volunteers that traveled South 50 years ago. When serving, I think it’s important to reflect upon what we bring with us, the good and the not so good. I am grateful that their memory pushes me to do so.