Tag Archives: civil rights

“Profit is a Great Motivator for Tolerance”: Mississippi Jewish History Has Something to Say

Have you seen this image yet?

Eddie Outlaw

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.

For more information, visit the website If You’re Buying website and follow the news of this growing movement on their Facebook page.

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Posted on April 30, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Meet Another Moses

bob moses

Bob Moses

Do you know Mr. Moses? Mr. Bob Moses?

I’ve always associated Bob Moses’s name with civil rights and, specifically, his well-known initiative the “Algebra Project.” The Algebra Project, according to its mission statement, “uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America.”

The more I learn about Mr. Moses, the more impressed I become. Bob Moses was the man the press considered “the mastermind” behind Freedom Summer. He worked with Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Summer to bring over 1,000 college students from out of state to teach in Freedom Schools and register voters.

To many, his last name—Moses—seemed more than appropriate.

And so, as Passover continues, I thought I’d encourage people to learn the story of another Moses: Bob Moses. While he did not split the Red Sea, he led a mission to redeem people who had been prevented from exercising their right to vote and receiving a high quality education. Learning more about Freedom Summer, I have a greater understanding of this modern day Moses. This African American Spiritual has made it into many Haggadot and, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, it seems fit to recognize the heroism of Mr. (Bob) Moses:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,

Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.

Go down( BOB) Moses,

Way down in Mississippi-land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go.

50 years later, Bob Moses continues to do incredible work. He, along with many Freedom Summer volunteers will be in Mississippi from June 25 through June 29 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this watershed event. The ISJL looks forward to welcoming people to Mississippi to participate in the commemoration, and particularly looks forward to welcoming today’s Jewish activists who can participate in a special summit to learn about the Jewish legacy of Freedom Summer and focus on Jewish social justice activism today. Learn more here!

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Posted on April 18, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

From Every Hill and Molehill of Mississippi

mlk-prayingThe Civil Rights movement is once again front and center here in Mississippi. Last year was the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers‘ murder; this summer will mark 50 years since Freedom Summer.

Today, as we reflect on the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some of his greatest lessons are also front and center, and very evident in settings near and far: the power of place, and the even greater power of community.

We are here in Mississippi, the controversial heart-center of Freedom Summer, the end point for the freedom rides. Mississippi, whose work-cut-out-for-us reality was spelled out in Dr. King’s most famous of speeches, “I Have a Dream”:

From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring. But not only that: Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

A few weeks ago, from our desks here in Mississippi, several ISJL staff members joined a great video conference hosted by Jewish Women’s Archive, to go over their fantastic Freedom Summer curriculum resources. A few days ago, the staff here all gathered to discuss a film about inequality and discuss how we, as individuals and as an institution, can be a part of positive change. We partner with a diverse group of organizations, working to that end – Jewish and Christian and those of many other faiths, Southern and Northern and international.

Today, we also wanted to share an excerpt from our friends at Jewish& in which African American Jews share their thoughts on Dr. King’s legacy. Here’s a brief excerpt, and we strongly encourage you to read the entire piece:

Sandra-LawsonREVSandra Lawson, a military veteran and social activist, calls Atlanta home. She is currently a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

“I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well. As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.”

Continue reading here>>

Wherever we are and whatever our background, we can play a role in, as Sandra Lawson says, making the world “a better place for all.” All people, in all places. Let freedom ring from every mountain and molehill of Mississippi!

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Posted on January 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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