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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November 9, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass.” It is the night many point to as the beginning of the Holocaust.
I remember observing Kristallnacht in the small Jewish community to which I belonged as a child. We were the only Jewish family in our tiny, rural town, and we commuted to Flint, Michigan, to participate in Jewish life.
In Michigan, by November, it’s usually pretty cold after dark. My memories of Kristallnacht services, held outdoors, consist mostly of people huddled together for warmth; solemn readings of prayers and poems; candles lit, blown out, and lit again. The dark, cold night lent itself well to an imaginative child putting herself in her ancestor’s shoes, feeling the cold grip of fear they must have felt as windows shattered and screams sounded and evil went from local to government-sanctioned.
Recalling these events, the eve of the Holocaust, people from all walks of life came together over a brokenness in the world.
Shortly after I moved to Mississippi in 2003, I was invited to attend another sort of memorial service. Several of us drove from Jackson up to Neshoba County, Mississippi, for the 39th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and in particular to commemorate the brutal murders of three Civil Rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
One black man from Mississippi, two Jewish men from up North, all working for freedom – all killed on a dark, terror-filled night. The memorial service for them took place in a small Baptist church. In Mississippi. In June. There was no central air conditioning, just people crammed together, waving church fans, sweating, crying, singing gospel hymns. The sweltering, singing church lent itself well to an imaginative young woman putting herself in the civil rights fighters’ shoes, feeling the echoes of the evil they faced and the losses their families endured. Though this was my first time at that church, there was something so familiar about where we were and what we weredoing.
Recalling the events, the casualties of Freedom Summer, people from all walks of life had come together over a brokenness in the world.
This November, we mark 75 years since Kristallnacht. This coming June, we will mark 50 years since Freedom Summer.
We are always hesitant to connect tragedies, to link one loss to another, fearing diminishing the pain or significance of either. Facing these two milestones of memory, I find that I cannot – I dare not – compare the Holocaust to the Civil Rights movement. However, I do find that I absolutely can, and will, and must compare the way that both of these events are remembered. Years later, people of different faiths and backgrounds come together, demonstrating by their very presence that they understand this truth about brokenness: Bad things happen when good people do nothing, and what impacts one group impacts us all.
We do not always learn this the first time, but when we come together and remember, our understanding is strengthened. We acknowledge past wrongs and pledge to build something better in the future.
The histories may be different. The weather, the setting, the stories are not the same. But whether we are standing outside and shivering in the cold, or fanning ourselves in an oppressive heat, we come together over brokenness. We remember. And together we say, amen.
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This blog is written by Sam Gardner, who just finished his summer internship in the ISJL’s history department.
The Neshoba County Fair is not your typical county fair. Yes, it does have the rides, game booths, and fried delicacies, but this is where the ordinary ends and extraordinary begins at Neshoba.
Starting in 1889, the Neshoba County Fair is a long-standing Mississippi tradition, with two unique features: the cabins and the political speeches. Some of the cabins have been owned by the same families for generations. Although most owners reside in their cabin for the one week of the fair and the cabin is vacant the rest of the year, cabins can sell for as much as the most expensive house in the county. It’s prime real estate, hard to acquire.
Then, there are the speeches, traditionally made by state government officials, but also university presidents and even presidential nominee Ronald Reagan during his 1980 campaign. The two main speakers on the day I joined some other ISJL staff for a fair field trip were Mississippi’s Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn, and Governor Phil Bryant. The Phils are known for their strong conservative views, and in the weeks leading up to the fair, my fellow interns and I, all liberal-minded northerners, were excited to experience what some have described as “Woodstock for Mississippi Republicans.”
When we arrived at the fair, we saw colorful cabins with family names posted on the front, eccentric decorations, an unsettling number of confederate flags, and lots of white people. We walked over to Founder’s Square, the center of the fairgrounds, and made our way to the Pavilion, a large, open-air wooden structure with rows of benches and a podium at the front for the speakers.
Phillip Gunn spoke about new education requirements and charter school laws, intended to help children in failing school districts. His most memorable quote was on the topic of guns: “When it’s three in the morning and someone’s coming through my door, and I don’t know how many there are, I need to have more bullets and bigger guns than they have.” Like Gunn on guns, Governor Phil Bryant (pictured at left) was obviously in his element at Neshoba and delivered a free-wheeling and impassioned speech. When discussing a controversial new open carry gun law, he promised to veto any effort to overturn it “faster than a shot out of a Winchester.” His defense of gun rights and school prayer elicited loud cheers from the audience; I definitely felt out of place. Clearly, I was not in New York City anymore.
If conservative politics makes up one pillar of the fair, the other is southern hospitality. We were invited to eat lunch at the cabin of Dick Molpus, former Secretary of State and a longtime leader of the Democratic Party in Mississippi. Recently, Dick received attention on the Daily Show, including an on-air apology from Jon Stewart, who had made incorrect assumptions about him as a white office holder in Mississippi. In fact, Molpus, a native of Neshoba County, has been an outspoken advocate of racial justice and public education in Mississippi. He welcomed our group and served us a delicious southern (and kosher-style) lunch.
Before we left, Gabe and Lex, two co-workers, visited the Williams cabin on the advice of ESPN writer Wright Thompson. Gabe had tweeted Wright, a Mississippi native, the day before to ask his recommendations for the fair, and he told Gabe to go to the yellow cabin and ask for Snooky and Mary Lou. They were welcomed at the house and offered food and whiskey, and invited to join the hosts for a football tailgate at “The Grove” at Ole Miss in the fall. Southern hospitality at its finest.
After leaving the fair, we drove into Philadelphia, MS, site of the infamous murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. We visited Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church where there is a gravestone memorial for the three civil rights workers. After laying three stones on the marker, we headed back to Jackson.
My experience at the Neshoba County Fair was a microcosm of my time in Mississippi. I enjoyed my visit to the fair as people sat on their front porches schmoozing (though they might not use that word) and welcoming others into their cabins. The fun atmosphere of the fair is definitely palpable, and it is no wonder that people return year after year. However, being a New York Jew myself, having grown up literally three blocks away from where Andrew Goodman grew up, and having heard his brother talk at my high school a few years ago, I could not help but think about Philadelphia’s ugly history, which includes the murder of someone from such a similar background as myself.
I have definitely enjoyed my summer living in the South. I can now testify that in many ways, Mississippi is no less progressive than New York. However, I also cannot reconcile the fact that the Confederate flag, a symbol of oppression for so many Mississippians, continues to occupy a section of the state flag. This past weekend, I watched Wright Thompson’s documentary “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” which focuses on the Ole Miss 1962 football season and its relationship to the violent resistance to the school’s integration that same year. It accurately captures the questions and dilemmas that still puzzle me after spending the summer in Mississippi.
What is the appropriate way to deal with Mississippi’s history? How much can today’s problems be blamed on the past and how can we remember while also moving forward? Ghosts from Mississippi’s past still linger today, yet there has been so much positive change. I feel like I came to understand Mississippi’s ghosts – and its generosity- a little better at Neshoba. After my summer in Jackson meeting people from an assortment of backgrounds dedicated to making this state a better place, as I head home to New York, I am hopeful for Mississippi.