This is my first week as the historian for the ISJL. I’ve been so warmly welcomed here—and am already finding connections between my last phase of life, and this one.
I recently completed my PhD at New York University. My focus was on church-state issues in American history, so I had to read a lot of case law. When the opportunity arose to write Jewish history for the ISJL, I jumped on it. Public history has a particular appeal to me because I feel that studying history is not just about studying the past, but also about understanding trends within current society and searching for ways to make positive change.
I was especially pleased to be given an assignment researching a rabbi by the name of Judah Wechsler for the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Association. The association is interested in documenting the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Meridian given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom summer. Through my research, I discovered that Rabbi Wechsler became heavily involved in the issue of African American education as early as the late 19th century.
Like many small towns across the Reconstructionist South, Meridian, Mississippi, had limited free education offerings for African American children. Prior to 1871, an African American school was housed in the local Methodist church, but one of its teachers, Mr. Warren Tyler, was killed during a riot there in 1871. The other teacher, Mr. Price, was forced to leave town. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Henry McElroy and Rabbi Judah Wechsler, the school survived until 1875. Wechsler and others campaigned for a bond issue to construct the first brick public school building for African Americans.
Rabbi Wechsler actually donated $1,000 (close to $25,000 by today’s standard) of his own personal money toward the expense of the school. When the bond issue passed, Meridian’s black community asked that the new school be named in the rabbi’s honor. The Wechsler School still stands today, and is registered as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historical Places.
During the Civil Rights era, there were several instances of Southern and Northern Jews fighting for equal educational rights in Meridian and beyond. For instance, while I was in New York finishing my dissertation, I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Levy. During the summer of 1964, Mark served as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School.
Freedom schools were alternative free schools for African Americans set up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mitigate a segregated school system with little resources directed towards African American schools. Many African American children in small towns received little to no education. These schools aimed to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. The progressive, experiential curriculum emphasized student-centered teaching and learning by doing.
I spoke with Mark for over three hours. He has devoted his whole life to social justice measures. His passion for tikkun olam is downright contagious. Though I met him first in New York, Mark will be here in Mississippi for the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom summer. This exciting event runs from June 25-29, at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expect 3,000 activists, elected officials, students, scholars, and veterans of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer to commemorate the achievements of Freedom Summer. This event isn’t just about the past, but will serve as a launching pad for social action focused on four closely-related social issues impacting minorities in Mississippi and beyond: Education, Workers Rights, Healthcare, and Voting Rights within Mississippi and the nation.
(As a further connection, Rabbi Wechsler shares a last name with my dissertation chair, Dr. Harold Wechsler of NYU, who is quite learned and also extremely warm-hearted. I could not trace a blood relationship between the two men, but they share a generous spirit. Just one more way history and community connects to our own stories!)
If you, too, are interested in connecting with living history and making the world better, the ISJL is helping coordinate complimentary special programs focusing on past and potential Jewish contributions to social justice. The event promises to be an enriching and exciting experience and all of us at ISJL encourage you to come. More details are here. I hope to see you in Mississippi!
Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, but raised in rural Arkansas. She lived many lives in many places, and died peacefully in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In its memorial to her published this morning, the New York Times hailed Angelou as a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South.” She was so much: a Southerner, a traveler, a poet, a dancer, an activist, a leader, a reader, a teacher, a champion. She used her words as a tool to inspire change.
Many of her quotes talk about how we approach service, and how we think about those “in need” in a more human, nuanced way. I chose this quote to think about today:
“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”
May Maya’s memory be a blessing.
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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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