The Civil Rights Movement is one of the most compelling chapters of American history. State and federal governments were right to set aside a holiday to celebrate its achievements – and without a doubt, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the movement’s most eloquent and charismatic spokesman. His tragic death made him a martyr to the cause of justice. And yet, every Martin Luther King Day, I find myself resisting this exclusive focus on Dr. King, who has come to represent the sum total of the movement for most Americans.
This idea struck me most recently when I was attending a presentation by a group of students from McComb, Mississippi, who were taking part in a special locally-focused civil rights course. The two high school students noted that while they had heard of Martin Luther King, they had no idea of the civil rights history of their own town. Prior to the class, they had never heard of Herbert Lee, a leader of the McComb black community and fighter for civil rights, who was murdered by a state legislator in 1961. As part of the course, these students have interviewed several community members who played a role in the local movement.
These students have done tremendous work uncovering the civil rights history of their own community. This exciting McComb Legacy Project shows that all of our communities have an important civil rights history that needs to be preserved and understood. Our heroes are not just carved into monuments in Washington. They still walk the streets of our communities.
The most important lesson of the movement is how regular people came together to change this country. The best book about the Mississippi movement, Local People, by John Dittmer, sums up this idea in its very title. I fear that by focusing exclusively on the life and achievements of one great leader, we lose sight of the idea that we all have the power to change the world.
It’s true. We do have the collective power to change the world. It happened right here, during the Civil Rights Movement.
So today, challenge yourself to learn something about other great leaders like Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Aaron Henry, Fred Shuttlesworth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many more. Even better, look into the civil rights history of your own community (be it north, south, east, or west). I am sure you will uncover local heroes who helped ensure the continuation of Dr. King’s dream.
Do you have family or community members who fought for civil rights? How will you honor this legacy?
I was in North Mississippi, visiting my husband’s family for the first time over Thanksgiving when I first heard about “the blind.” Being Jewish and from the North I had never heard this term, but after lunch we drove through the eerily empty and beautiful delta fields out to his father’s duck blind. It was a camouflaged hideout, made to fit eight people and two dogs. They had flooded the field to attract ducks flying south for winter and filled the water with elaborate decoys that, with a flip of a switch flapped their wings, signaling to ducks flying overhead that this was a safe place to land. When I asked about the small camp stove, I learned that the space served more as a clubhouse on early weekend mornings than a place for serious hunting.
I was reminded of that blind when I first spotted this beautifully crafted decoy in our museum collection. Created as a commemorative piece, it’s not bound for the flooded fields, but lives in our collection instead, as a symbol of both Jewish and Southern heritage.
This duck comes from a synagogue in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vickburg’s Anshe Chesed dedicated their first house of worship in 1870. Like all great southern celebrations, the program began with a parade from the B’nai B’rith hall to the new temple, led by a police escort and Jaeger’s Brass Band from New Orleans. The congregation spent over 100 years in the building until the late 1960s, when they decided to move out of downtown and build a smaller temple. Their original building was torn down.
Before the old synagogue came down, though, congregants wanted keep something to remember it by. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to honor an important southern institution than to manifest it in this traditional art form.
Congregants Benji and Betty Lee Grundfest Lamensdorf had a set of these wonderful decoys carved from the wood remnants of the temple, and one of them made its way into our collection. They serve as a reminder of what Jewish life once was, and still is in Vicksburg. The congregation, now over 160 years old, has shrunk significantly, but they still hold lay-led services and social gathering on most Shabbats. You might say these birds of a feather have done a great job sticking together, and we hope they continue to do so for many more Shabbats to come.
As stated in one of our last posts about the hurricane, we are familiar with what the devastation of hurricanes looks like in the South. But the recent photographs of flooded cities coming out of New York and New Jersey during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy remind me of other stunning photos captured during a massive flood in this region that goes back further than Katrina or Camille.
These images are from a collection of photos and documents that once belonged to Marshall Levitt of Greenwood, MS. They depict the Flood of 1927, a devastating flood on April 21st , caused by a weather system that brought huge amounts of rain to the Upper Mississippi River Region and resulted in the levees breaking. It caused water to cover nearly one million acres of the Mississippi Delta, ten feet deep in ten days, and covered much of the area for months.
While Greenville, MS infamously suffered the worst of the flood, the expansive impact of the water can be seen in these photos which were taken over 50 miles away to the east of the river in Greenwood, MS.
At the time, The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was the nation’s greatest natural disaster, affecting an estimated population of 185,495. Clearly, the scope of Hurricane Sandy’s damage is much larger. I hope for my friends and family in the Northeast that years from now, after a successful recovery, the photos captured from this storm will seem just as unbelievable as these from Greenwood do today.