This month I made a big move. After a year spent in Jerusalem, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve as the first ISJL Community Engagement Fellow. It’s a two year commitment, and a big adventure. The timing of my move also coincides with the anniversary of a pretty momentous event in Mississippi’s history: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In reading more about the courageous volunteers that traveled to Mississippi that summer, I am struck by the similarities I’ve felt traveling to Mississippi this year. I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Portland for college. A week ago, I drove from Arizona to Mississippi. It was the first time I set foot on Southern soil. I knew relatively little about the history of the South, and even less about the culture. I am grappling to understand the complexities of race and class relations and issues in Jackson. As a young, white, middle-class Jewish woman, I felt strange taking a community engagement position in a community that was not my own. Throughout my life, I’ve felt a passion to address inequalities in my own communities. I kept asking myself “why move to Mississippi to continue this work?”
I fear that in community engagement work, good intentions can easily be misconstrued as a foreigner entering a community, and helping, because he or she knows what’s best for that community. I know that I don’t know what’s best for people I will be in contact with in the future, and want to be vocal about that. I’m not coming to save the day, privilege in tow. I’m here to become part of a team, to listen, and to learn.
Fifty years ago, over 1,000 Northern volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The majority of them were young and white (and a significant amount were Jewish). There are a lot of difficult, and amazing, things wrapped up in this fact- a large amount of young, white Northerners coming to the South to help register and empower African Americans. People coming to serve a community that was not theirs. Even with the best intentions, I fear that in such a situation sometimes we have expectations and assumptions regarding the people we are serving. Sometimes the world that we want to help doesn’t greet us the way we expect. When we do work that we are passionate about, it’s amazing to be validated by those whom we help. But sometimes it isn’t easy to give that validation, and the hardest part is asking why.
I am in no way trying to lessen the incredible thing that these brave young men and women did. Quite the contrary, the memory of these volunteers inspires me moving forward with my job. I am humbled by the Jewish history and heritage of service.
As a stranger coming to this place, I am reminded of the mitzvah to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger into our midst. I don’t want to do that—not in this instance. I am the stranger, right now, but I don’t want the community I live and work in to be a strange one. I don’t want to view the work that young men and women did 50 years ago as welcoming the stranger into their world. My goal is to serve this community as an insider, to find commonalities, to love it as my own.
I want to give gratitude to the volunteers that traveled South 50 years ago. When serving, I think it’s important to reflect upon what we bring with us, the good and the not so good. I am grateful that their memory pushes me to do so.
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.
“In the Nazi concentration camps of Germany people had seen the end results of racism.”- Lee Lorch to New York Times interviewer William Kelly
As a recently returned WWII veteran, Lee Lorch was in need of a place to live. Like many other veterans, Lorch and his family moved into Stuyvesant Town, a housing development in Manhattan.
Lorch was lucky enough to be a prime housing candidate for this development, as he was recently quoted as saying in a New York Times tribute, “A steady job, college teacher and all that. And, not black.”
Lorch, who identified as Jewish, joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in many efforts, and even one failed lawsuit, to rectify the wrongs wrought by housing discrimination.
Because of his role as a civil rights activist and his suspected involvement with the Communist party, Lorch was forced to leave three teaching positions at three different academic institutions, two of which were historically black colleges in the South (one in Tennessee and one in Arkansas).
Lorch died recently at ninety-eight, professing his unfaltering belief that he had done the right thing, only wishing he could have done more, until the very end. You can read his obituary in the New York Times here.
As a non-Jew, I find the role his Jewish identity and the role of the American Jewish Congress in fighting housing discrimination based on race fascinating and captivating, particularly because the white Christian community was not particularly involved with this struggle at the time. In fact, many Christian organizations (the Ku Klux Klan comes to mind) actively fought, often times violently, for oppression.
As a person who grew up a white Christian and still ascribes to a particular type of Christian spirituality, I consider it of utmost importance to examine the dark parts of the religion, not only in its history, but also in modern times. As LexRofes mentioned in his most recent blog post, Senate Bill 2681 is being fought for in Mississippi. This bill legalizes discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. As Lex reflects upon how his Jewish identity calls for him to reject this bill due, in particular, to the negative implications it might have for the LGBT community, I would like to call upon how my Christian identity also calls me to do so.
Fundamentalist Christians are notorious for preaching discrimination and oppression for and against people groups they consider different from themselves. Citing ancient and out of context passages from the Bible, they conjure images of fire and brimstone and promise that homosexuality is abhorred by god. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church is almost entirely built upon their motto: “God hates fags.”
I find it incredibly embarrassing that I even in name share a religious identity with this church. My understanding of the teachings of Jesus are so deeply steeped in love that it is completely impossible for me to understand how people can call themselves Christians and yet act so hateful, so un-Christ-like. Coming from a Christian perspective, I beg the leaders in Mississippi government, most of whom identify as Christian, to consider Christianity’s in part discriminatory past and not allow history to repeat itself.
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