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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This morning, my friend and co-worker Nonnie asked me if I had seen the Oscars. I told her I had watched some of it.
“Did you see the speech by Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave?” She asked. “At the end of the speech, he talked about modern day slaves!”
Steve McQueen’s words, which I looked up this morning, included this statement: “Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live… I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”
21 million people who still suffer slavery today. It’s impossible to comprehend the weight of that number. The pain. The lack of human dignity. The violations.
Nonnie was grateful that the issue of human slavery took center stage during this hugely televised event, even if for just one minute. In fact, just the week before, she heard a report about the astronomical number of people living in servitude today, and how not enough is being done.
“What can we do?” She had asked me.
Here in Mississippi, we are abuzz with talk about the upcoming 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. There is an effort underway to commemorate Freedom Summer and energize people around the four issues the volunteers worked on during Freedom Summer: Voting rights, Education, Health Care and Workers’ Rights. All important issues.
But what about slavery itself? What can we do?
This is one idea came from one of our fellow members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable: The Jewish Council For Public Affairs (JCPA) is having its Annual Plenum in Atlanta, Georgia, March 8-11 2014. They will be voting on whether to adopt resolutions proposed by various agencies. One of the resolutions that is up for debate and discussion is the Resolution on Combating Human Trafficking. Many communities in our region have delegates representing them at this conference through their local Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRC) and Community Relations Committees (CRC).
Let’s let our local representatives know that we want modern day slavery to be a priority of our community and that we want to commit our time and resources to advocating for policies and strategies that will help eliminate this inhumane practice.
Let’s talk about this issue not as something past, but as something real and present today, as we prepare to sit around seder tables next month.
Let’s be a part of ending slavery.
Please share your ideas of what our readers can do to help eliminate modern day slavery in the comments below!