As we prepare for the new year ahead, we’ll be sharing several Southern & Jewish posts reflecting on “how we spent our summer.” Today’s post come from two guests who visited us down South, Jay Saper and Margot Seigle.
This May, the two of us—white Jews who grew up in the Midwest—traveled down to Mississippi. Inspired by emerging efforts to develop the South as a hub for cooperative enterprise, we sought to learn more at the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. Like the Jews involved in the Civil Rights movement in the generations before us, we came South, too.
As we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the Medgar Evers Airport to take us to Jackson State University, we strolled into an exhibit about the person after whom the airport was named. In 1954, Medgar Evers was appointed the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He traveled the state courageously advocating for Black rights.
Evers’ bravery came with a toll. After driving home on the evening of June 12, 1963, he took shirts reading “Jim Crow Must Go” out of the car to bring inside his home. He started up his driveway, but a bullet took his life before he could make it to the door.
The following year, building on Evers’ dedicated decade of organizing, a coalition of civil rights organizations launched Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was a summer of change – and of more loss. As we read the names of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman on the wall of the exhibit in the Jackson airport, we wondered at their legacy, and our own role in coming South.
At the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference we learned about an exciting way people in the South are working to challenge racism today: by building a democratic economy that meets their presently unmet needs. This approach to community resilience comes out of a long tradition documented by Jessica Gordon Nembhard in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.
We got to meet with John Zippert, a fellow Jew who has long acted in solidarity with Blacks in the South to advance racial and economic justice through the cooperative model. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Zippert was active in social struggles from a young age in New York City. In the summer of 1965, Zippert went South as a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality. He helped farmers looking for a better price on their sweet potatoes to set up a cooperative. Through this work he met Carol Prejean. The two would go on to be the first married interracial couple in Louisiana.
Since 1970, Zippert has been working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization that grew directly out of the Civil Rights Movement. The Federation works to maintain Black owned land and expand the use of cooperatives for economic development. It has been integral to challenging discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. In 2012, Tuskegee University inducted Zippert into the George Washington Carver Hall of Fame for his tireless dedication to those who are disadvantaged.
The organizers from Cooperation Jackson and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project communicated with us that the movement for economic democracy is building in exciting and powerful ways. There is still a lot of work to be done, and when we come together, that work can get done. That’s why we came South, and will continue to partner with the amazing individuals and groups fighting for social change today.
“Do you live in the same place where you were raised?”
The ISJL’s founder, Macy B. Hart, likes to ask people that question. He asked it of me, and like so many others, I had to say no.
I was born in Texas and have lived in many different states—California, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, New York, and now, Mississippi. I recently found this New York Times article, which shows where we came from, state by state, since 1900. As a historian, it fascinated me, and I wanted to share it with our readers here.
In 1900, 86% of Mississippians were born in Mississippi. By 2012, that number dropped to 72% — which is still higher than a lot of states, such as Texas, where only 61% of Texans originally hailing from the state.
The number of native born Mississippian Jews has declined precipitously. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews spread themselves throughout the state. In 1937, Jews lived in 107 different Mississippi towns. It reached its peak in 1927, with 6,420 Jews. Since then, it has declined steadily. In 2012, only 1,500 Jews lived in Mississippi, with Jackson having the largest community. The generation of Jewish merchants produced children who became college-educated professionals and had little interest in taking over family businesses. The decline of Mississippi’s rural economy and the rise of national retail chains have also pushed Mississippi Jews to such booming Sunbelt cities as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston.
I never expected to live in Mississippi, but I am so glad to be here and to call Jackson my home. The Jewish community here has been more than welcoming. It is a testament to the fact that despite their small size, Mississippi Jews continue to identify with their heritage, and have kept Judaism alive in the Magnolia State.
Wherever they may end up living, Southern Jews are proud of their heritage. As a native Southern Jew, I am honored to be able to tell those stories. So what about you? Do you or your other family members have Southern roots? I am curious to hear from all of our readers about their journeys so I can continue to share them on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities.
Y’all don’t be shy now!
“Where do we start?”
That’s a question I hear often from groups of people seeking to make an impact in their community. I can’t ever say I have the answer but I often suggest looking at the data and studying the community’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges.
Kids Count just released data from 50 states that ranks each state according to the well-being of families and children in the state. The state I live in, Mississippi, is on the bottom of that list—and not for the first time.
As someone who works in community engagement, teaming up with Jewish congregations and other committed partners to make meaningful and sustainable change, reports like this are important. They can also be disheartening. So when we are presented with data, we ask again: “Where do we start?”
Luckily, the data itself can help guide our tikkun olam efforts.
Jamie Bardwell, Program Director at the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi (an organization that has supported the ISJL’s peer mediation program, T.A.P.) points out that advancing in ranks requires that interconnected indicators are simultaneously addressed. In other words, to alleviate poverty, we cannot focus solely on job training for single mothers, or better education for their children, or access to affordable child care; we must work on all of these interconnected indicators of poverty.
One thing to point out is that there is hope. Even while Mississippi is ranked lowest, there is evidence of some improvement. And while we know we have our work cut out for us, we can use this data to create benchmarks. For example, Mississippi ranks 50th in the economic well-being of children. A total of 256,000 children, or 35% of all children living in Mississippi, live in poverty. As a starting point, what would it take to get us from 50th up to 49th in children’s poverty?
New Mexico currently sits at 49th with 29% of their children living in poverty. That means, if we can move approximately 43,000 children out of poverty, we could move up in our rankings. This might still seem daunting, but the data provides us with benchmarks and goals to strive toward. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce child poverty to 0% and that is an important goal to keep in mind. But, the data can help us push our state to move ahead in increments.
Have you looked at the data released about your state? Is there anything that surprised you? Are you and your congregation helping to move the needle in your state? If you are, please share what you are doing!