Today is Veteran’s Day. A rainy November Tuesday. I began my day at my computer, appreciating the Facebook statuses honoring veterans, noting the lovely Google Doodle honoring veterans, chuckling at an email from my eight-year old-cousin wherein she thanked various family members for their service and also “for getting me today off of schooooooool!”
Then I got an email from The Andrew Goodman Foundation, and learned that the President has named James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner as recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom— commemorating the lives they lost 50 years ago in an effort to bring justice and equality to Americans in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
The email stopped me in my tracks. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner are names to which I feel so personally connected. I have written about attending their annual memorial in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The ISJL spearheaded Jewish activists track in conjunction with this summer’s Freedom Summer 50. To be honest, I was surprised that this wasn’t an honor already bestowed on these heroes decades earlier.
Here is an excerpt of the statement from the White House: “James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were civil rights activists and participants in “Freedom Summer,” an historic voter registration drive in 1964. As African Americans were systematically being blocked from voter rolls, Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman, and Mr. Schwerner joined hundreds of others working to register black voters in Mississippi. They were murdered at the outset of Freedom Summer. Their deaths shocked the nation and their efforts helped to inspire many of the landmark civil rights advancements that followed.”
I thought about the word we used to describe the individuals who journeyed back to Mississippi this summer to share their stories of fighting for civil rights: veterans of the movement.
I thought about what I did one week ago, last Tuesday: I voted. I exercised the very right Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, and all of the civil rights volunteers—the veterans, and the victims—were working to ensure all citizens had.
I wish that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were in the news today being honored as veterans. But their Medal of Freedom comes posthumously. They are not veterans, but their memory is honored today—and there are many veterans of the movement still living and teaching us today. I think we should honor these veterans today, as well. Because while these three men, so tragically killed, have become public faces of the civil rights movement, they worked alongside many others.
So, while I honor all of those who served as soldiers and survived battles for our nation’s freedom, I have also been reminded to honor those who fought battles here at home, to extend that freedom to all. To that end, I wanted to share this video that my colleagues Rachel and Malkie sent my way. It will give you a small taste of the large impact made by the veterans who spoke to an audience in Jackson this past summer.
To all who fight for freedom, then, now, and always, you have our gratitude. This Veteran’s Day will also serve as a memorial day, and a reminder—this nation has been strengthened through the service and sacrifice of so many, and we honor that commitment to freedom.
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As we prepare for the new year ahead, we’ll be sharing several Southern & Jewish posts reflecting on “how we spent our summer.” Today’s post come from two guests who visited us down South, Jay Saper and Margot Seigle.
This May, the two of us—white Jews who grew up in the Midwest—traveled down to Mississippi. Inspired by emerging efforts to develop the South as a hub for cooperative enterprise, we sought to learn more at the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. Like the Jews involved in the Civil Rights movement in the generations before us, we came South, too.
As we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the Medgar Evers Airport to take us to Jackson State University, we strolled into an exhibit about the person after whom the airport was named. In 1954, Medgar Evers was appointed the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He traveled the state courageously advocating for Black rights.
Evers’ bravery came with a toll. After driving home on the evening of June 12, 1963, he took shirts reading “Jim Crow Must Go” out of the car to bring inside his home. He started up his driveway, but a bullet took his life before he could make it to the door.
The following year, building on Evers’ dedicated decade of organizing, a coalition of civil rights organizations launched Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was a summer of change – and of more loss. As we read the names of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman on the wall of the exhibit in the Jackson airport, we wondered at their legacy, and our own role in coming South.
At the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference we learned about an exciting way people in the South are working to challenge racism today: by building a democratic economy that meets their presently unmet needs. This approach to community resilience comes out of a long tradition documented by Jessica Gordon Nembhard in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.
We got to meet with John Zippert, a fellow Jew who has long acted in solidarity with Blacks in the South to advance racial and economic justice through the cooperative model. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Zippert was active in social struggles from a young age in New York City. In the summer of 1965, Zippert went South as a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality. He helped farmers looking for a better price on their sweet potatoes to set up a cooperative. Through this work he met Carol Prejean. The two would go on to be the first married interracial couple in Louisiana.
Since 1970, Zippert has been working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization that grew directly out of the Civil Rights Movement. The Federation works to maintain Black owned land and expand the use of cooperatives for economic development. It has been integral to challenging discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. In 2012, Tuskegee University inducted Zippert into the George Washington Carver Hall of Fame for his tireless dedication to those who are disadvantaged.
The organizers from Cooperation Jackson and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project communicated with us that the movement for economic democracy is building in exciting and powerful ways. There is still a lot of work to be done, and when we come together, that work can get done. That’s why we came South, and will continue to partner with the amazing individuals and groups fighting for social change today.
Yesterday, the ISJL hosted students from Operation Understanding, an organization whose mission is to develop a group of young African American and Jewish leaders knowledgeable about each other’s histories and cultures to effectively lead the communities of Philadelphia, PA and Washington, D.C. to a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.
I thought I would share with our readers here a little of what I shared with the students in our office.
Having taught high school history for a number of years, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do a presentation for teenagers on the relationship between Southern Jews and African Americans. This is not an easy talk to give to any age group, because while we like the stories of Jews fighting for civil rights, the historical truth is that those were primarily Northern Jews; most Southern Jews were not actively involved in fighting against the white hierarchy of the South.
Jews in states like Mississippi lived in a climate of fear and intimidation. Southern Jews were acutely aware that any challenge to white supremacy would result in serious social and economic consequences. Synagogue bombings, threats of economic boycott, and violence directed against civil rights workers convinced a lot of Southern Jews to remain relatively silent.
African American activists faced the same challenges, but to a much higher degree. James Chaney – one of three civil rights workers murdered during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi – struggled to find support for civil rights among his local community. They were afraid of falling prey to what ultimately happened to Chaney. Chaney knew the risk and accepted it, paying dearly for his bravery. Following his death, his mother Fannie made sure that James’ younger brother Ben would follow his brother’s footsteps. I can’t imagine the kind of courage that would allow a mother to risk such a sacrifice, but she did, and Ben is still an active advocate of civil rights today.
Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a Jewish activist who came down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi trying to register black voters, elected to leave the danger almost as soon as he arrived. He did not make the decision lightly or at some small act of intimidation, however: he was senselessly beaten with a tire iron in board daylight by white supremacists. A small group representing Hattiesburg’s Jewish community urged him to get out of town, fearful their synagogue would get burned or their members injured or killed. Lelyveld responded: “Don’t worry, I can’t wait to leave.”
These stories illustrate of a larger lesson: when any one of us fights for a social justice cause, we often embark on that journey with the best of intentions and without anticipating all of the dangers, difficulties and tragedies along the way. When that path threatens our safety or the safety of others, we begin to question how far we should go. Despite enduring great risk and suffering great injury, Lelyveld was able to return to the North and never face his aggressors again. Jews within the Hattiesburg community had to live among them with the memory of his beating urging them against anything other than compliance.
Even still, some very brave Southern Jews did stand up for civil rights in all sorts of ways. Many prominent Southern rabbis called for an end to bombings of African American churches and school segregation. And, despite the threat of boycotts against businesses owned by their husbands and families, many Jewish women worked against the segregationist system through organizations like the Women’s Emergency Committee. The organization was formed to combat the governor’s closing of Little Rock High schools. One Jewish woman, Marilyn Siegel, raised money for the WEC while dying from cancer.
Today, learning and working together, we can use these stories as an opportunity to ask ourselves larger questions about what we would do in similar circumstances. The issue of personal sacrifice for the sake of the common good is at the crux of a democracy. Each of us must inevitably weigh just how much we are willing to sacrifice for others every day in our own lives.
Here are some of the reflections and insights from some of these amazing students:
- “I think too many people my age assume someone else is going to take care of things and so they don’t do anything but it doesn’t mean we don’t still care.”
- “In my community, the biggest problem is young black males being incarcerated, but I don’t know how to help because the problem seems so big.”
- “A bunch of us walked out to protest budget cuts to our public schools, but not everyone because they were scared of being suspended. I think we let fear get in the way of standing up for things we care about.”
- “I like the fact that my community is so diverse. I think it makes everyone stronger somehow. People tend to look out for one another and that makes me proud to live there.”
What are your observations about diversity in your community? How do historical narratives shape your own understanding? I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.