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!
From my adopted hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, I’ve been thinking about Freedom Summer.
Now that we are a month away from the fiftieth anniversary of that historic summer, many people are recalling and taking action, planning and preparing. Many of today’s Jewish activists are writing articles, developing programs and setting action goals in honor of the large Jewish volunteer contingent that traveled from Northern cities to spend their summer fighting for civil rights in Mississippi 50 years ago.
I’ve been working on plans for the commemoration here in Jackson and am enamored by the vast collection of archival material available. Those involved with the movement that summer risked their lives to promote civil rights and they volunteered knowing they were going to make history.
Luckily for people like me, they were great collectors. And even luckier, dedicated archivists have put countless hours into digitizing the collections. The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), and perhaps more surprisingly the Wisconsin Historical Society, both have enormous and well organized (easily searchable!) collections available online. Here are a few of my favorite photos and documents from the USM collection, which all feature Hattiesburg volunteers.
There is a sense of community and camaraderie among the diverse volunteers in these scenes.
Volunteers learned to rely on each other and worked hard to build community in their temporary camps throughout the state. I see familiar joyful, pensive and exhausted looks that are common among the faces of today’s social activists. The work is not finished and similar efforts are still occurring in church basements and community centers in Mississippi, right here, right now.
We are happy people are commemorating the important work of local and national volunteers, shining a spotlight on the power of working together for change. But we also know what many people still think about Mississippi today. So this summer we’ve got a different idea.
Instead of reading about the work of Jewish volunteers 50 years ago, we want you to come here and create your own stories. We believe learning from Civil Rights veterans and contemporary social justice activists here in Mississippi and from throughout the nation, against the backdrop of this complicated, challenging, and important state, is a great opportunity to highlight what Mississippi has to offer.
Interested? Awesome, you’re my kind of blog reader. Fill our this interest form on our website here and we’ll be in touch about how to get you here! See you at the Freedom Summer 50th anniversary, when once again, Jewish activists will join hands with our neighbors to make things better.
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!