As I began the long trek down to Mississippi a few weeks ago, I found my mind constantly wandering into the past. And no, I wasn’t thinking back to my prior semester of college or fun times with friends. I was reflecting on exactly fifty years ago: the summer of 1964.
Better known today as “Freedom Summer,” this was a transformative moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Hundreds of volunteers descended on the state of Mississippi to focus national attention on the horrors of segregation; they came to establish “Freedom Schools” and register African Americans to vote. Most of the volunteers were white college students just like myself. And over half of them were Jewish.
Since moving to Jackson and beginning my work as a Museum Intern with the ISJL, I find myself thinking about the many parallels between my own current journey and the experiences of young, white, Jewish students fifty years ago.
Why did they decide to come to Mississippi? How did Southern Jews view them once they got here? What challenges did they face while pursuing their work? While I continue to have more experiences in this state, the enduring legacies of history become more and more real to me. It has been so exciting to retrace the footsteps of many of these Freedom Summer veterans.
One of my most memorable experiences so far has been attending the 50th Commemorative Memorial Service for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. These three Freedom Summer volunteers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while registering black voters and investigating the firebombing of Mt. Zion Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the very same place the service was held. Besides the strong sense of place that I already felt that day, I was surrounded by the living history of the summer of 1964.
In addition to many lifelong residents of Neshoba County (many whom attended the Freedom Schools or could recall volunteers coming to their homes in attempt to register their families to vote), prominent civil rights activists such as Congressman John Lewis, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Bob Moses, Rita Schwerner, and Dave Dennis were present. I had goose bumps as I bore witness to how far our nation has come, while still realizing how the struggle continues today, particularly when it comes to voting rights and education. The very faces associated with the movement, profiled in documentaries, touched directly by this fight.
This week, I am continuing this journey at the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50 events. We have been working hard to create supplemental programs for reflection on the legacy of Jewish volunteers during Freedom Summer, and I am so excited to meet Jewish veterans like Heather Booth, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Lew Zuchman. I know that it will be a powerful gathering of younger and older generations; together we will exchange ideas and demonstrate how Jewish activism continues to thrive. I cannot wait to hear their stories and create new ones together.
You may not picture central Mississippi as central to Jewish life. But every summer, one of the most dynamic Jewish conferences anywhere takes place in Jackson, Mississippi.
Every June, Jewish educators from throughout the South, and great presenters from around the country, gather together for three days of learning, networking, celebration and inspiration at the ISJL’s teacher training institute, AKA “the education conference.” While Jackson may not be known by most as a Jewish metropolis, and most folks wouldn’t guess that this Southern town is the location for one of the leading Jewish education conferences in the country, the simple truth is that if you come to Jackson in June, you’ll know it’s true.
That conference begins this Sunday, and as always, I couldn’t be more excited. Volunteer teachers, along with full-time educators, rabbis, and Jewish professionals from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and all over the region will sit beside one another, sharing challenges, sharing best practices, and of course, sharing meals. (Hey, you can’t have a Jewish event without food!)
I’m certain this year’s conference will lead to wonderful connections, great stories and plenty of what I like to call “goosebump moments.” For now, our team is working hard to take care of every single last-minute detail so when participants arrive Sunday, everything is in place. We’re watering the seeds and can’t wait for this blossom to once again bloom into beautiful life, nurtured in the warmth of a Mississippi summer.
Now that the Jewish fall holidays have been celebrated, I have had some time to reflect on some of the meaningful moments of late summer and early autumn. This musing was inspired in part by a coworker, who sent me a screenshot of our Facebook page, showing the interesting juxtaposition of a picture of me and my fellow clergy speaking in Jackson… with a picture of another preacher and another rabbi preparing to speak to a crowd 50 years ago.
August marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. All around the United States, the diverse people that continually make this nation so great gathered to celebrate and remember that momentous day through song and prayer, through words and fellowship. I was part of the celebration here in Jackson. As I stood on the steps of the Mississippi Capitol, beside my friend and fellow Mississippi clergyman Bishop Ronnie Crudup, to honor the steps that had been made and those still remaining in the march towards true equality, I pondered that day from 50 years ago.
What would it have felt like to stand before the gathered assembly of 250,000? What exchanges may have taken place between those who waited to speak? Did Dr. Rabbi Yoachim Prinz say anything to Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as Prinz warmed up the crowd to hear King’s dream?
Given the collective spirit of God’s will present that day, they must have. For it was that same spirit that brought me and Bishop Crudup together this summer.
“I remember the original March,” Bishop Crudup shared. “I was seven and my mother was active in the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Aren’t you frustrated then that – as a society – we haven’t covered much ground?” I asked. “After all, right here in Mississippi, we’re still miles away from reaching a state in which every citizen – regardless of race or religion, gender or sexual orientation – has equal access to the same opportunities.”
Bishop Crudup grew reflectively silent. Then he said something I’ll never forget: “You may not see it. But, from the vantage point of my years, I do. You and I can stand together, dine together, work together. So, the work of changing laws is over; what remains is the challenge of changing hearts and minds.”
I nodded, knowing that this task was going to be as – if not more – difficult than the first task. But those who marched on Washington are passing us the baton. If we wish to move our society forward we can no longer simply march on Washington; we must also march over to our neighbors, and continue these important conversations.