There is something about the Mississippi Delta. Known as “the most southern place on earth,” the Delta region is a complicated place with an often tortured history. Last week, the ISJL History Department visited the region to learn how this flat, alluvial flood plain, once home to the most fertile cotton growing soil in the country, transformed America. For a long time, cotton was king in the Delta, as primarily white plantation owners employed black sharecroppers to plant, grow, and harvest the cash crop.
From the 1870s to the 1970s, the Delta’s fortunes rose and fell with the price of cotton. The Delta was the richest part of the state, but was also the site of tremendous poverty. These contradictions helped give rise to the blues, a style of music created in the Delta in the late 19th century and exported to the world in the 20th. One of our stops was Dockery Farm, a large cotton plantation that was once home to 2,000 sharecroppers, including blues legends Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House. Many have argued that the blues musical style was invented and first passed around on this 10,000 acre plantation.
Because cotton was so labor intensive, and that labor was provided by African Americans, the Delta’s population became majority black. But due to segregation and disfranchisement, whites were able to maintain political power in the Delta. But there was one exception: Mound Bayou. A small hamlet in the heart of the Delta, Mound Bayou was established as a black freedom town by founder Isaiah T. Montgomery, a former slave, in 1887. In Mound Bayou, blacks voted and did not experience Jim Crow. It was a safe haven for blacks, an oasis in a region where white supremacy ruled.
In Mound Bayou, we met with Dr. Eulah Peterson, the president of the local historical society, who spoke about the important role the town’s residents played in the struggle for civil rights. This struggle was sparked by a terrible incident in the Delta that captured the attention of the entire world. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and brutally murdered after supposedly whistling at a white female clerk at Bryant’s Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. His mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral, letting everyone see the grotesque condition of his body, drew attention to the brutality of white supremacy and inspired a movement to change the South. In Glendora, we toured a museum that tells this troubling but important story.
In nearby Ruleville, we visited a memorial to one of the Delta’s most important civil rights leaders, Fannie Lou Hamer. Ms. Hamer was a 44-year old sharecropper who was thrown off her plantation in 1962 after she tried to register to vote. She then became a movement leader, inspiring her younger colleagues with her plain-spoken eloquence and commitment to the cause. In her hometown where she was once vilified, Hamer is now honored with a memorial park. Next to her grave is a newly installed life-size statue of the activist.
While we were visiting the memorial, a police car pulled up, driven by a white officer, and two African American women got out of the back. Like us, the women were visitors to Ruleville, and the police chief had met them downtown and offered to take them to see the statue, the town’s most prized historic site. Such a scene would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. In the usual story of the Delta, little mention is made of Jews, who settled in the region starting in the late 19th century. Jews were always a tiny percentage of the Delta’s population. They did not work as sharecroppers and were rarely plantation owners. They were merchants, setting up shop in countless Delta towns, many of which were little more than wide places in the road. They established congregations and built synagogues in the Delta’s larger towns, in places like Clarksdale, Greenville, Greenwood, and Cleveland. As the Delta has declined economically, its Jewish community has shrunk. Today, there are three small congregations left.
In Greenwood, we met with Gail Goldberg of Congregation Ahavath Rayim. The traditional congregation, which once had a full-time rabbi and a flourishing religious school, is now down to nine people. They meet for lay-led services once a month, but still fill their sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah, when extended family and friends from around the country come to the Delta to help the congregation carry on its traditions.
Driving through the Delta, you think a lot about what used to be there: thriving market towns with several Jewish-owned stores; cotton fields ringed by sharecropper shacks; white elected officials thwarting the efforts of blacks to vote. Now, many of these small towns have little or no commerce, mechanical cotton pickers have ended the sharecropping system and you are just as likely to see soybeans growing as cotton, and most Delta towns have black elected officials. While the Delta has been transformed over the last several decades, as you drive by its farms and swamps, you realize that the past is never far behind.
Today’s post comes from Linnea Hurst, the ISJL’s Community Engagement Department intern this summer.
I am from Portland, Oregon, and had never visited to the South before this summer, so the adjustment to living in Jackson was a big one for me. Yet despite the fact I have only lived here for a month, I already feel at home. This is because I have been initiated into two welcoming and vibrant communities: the ISJL community and the larger community of Jackson.
In recognition of everything I’ve learned since arriving in Mississippi, here are a few of the new things I’ve learned:
1) It is extremely exciting to watch older students teach younger students to read.
Every day I oversee our Read, Lead, Succeed reading program, and recently I have learned to stop nervously circling the room waiting for an older student to goof off or lose focus. Instead, I spend most of my time simply watching in awe as the reading leaders take on the role of teacher and encourage their student to stay focused or tackle new words.
2) Medgar Evers was an advocate for youth involvement during the Civil Rights Movement.
All the ISJL summer interns were lucky enough to attend some of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ assassination here in Jackson. We learned that while other Civil rights leaders were hesitant to include young people in the activism, Evers made a point to encourage involvement of younger activists in local youth councils.
3) There is no one way to approach social justice.
When I’m not working with the reading program, I spend my days researching social justice efforts taken by Jewish communities in the South. I have discovered that inter-faith work, forming women’s advocacy groups and radio broadcasting have all been ways in which Jews in the region have historically tackled social issues in their communities.
4) The drive for equality and justice is something felt by everyone, no matter their faith. In my research I have found that in many Southern communities (including Jackson), Jews have worked alongside the larger community to advocate, organize and create change. Although for Jews this urge to help others may have originated from their Jewish identity, it could be understood and picked up by those who were not Jewish. This is not just an occurrence of the past. I am a living example as I work with the ISJL’s Community Engagement Department to create positive change here in Jackson, even though I am not Jewish.
5) Pickled eggs are pink on the inside, and I am not entirely opposed to their taste.
As you might have guessed, this was a learning experience that took place outside of the ISJL. As I was standing in line at a gas station, I wondered aloud if I should try one of the pickled eggs floating ominously in a large jar. The woman behind me overheard and told me of her love of pickled pig lip. She then suggested that yes, I should try an egg. Before I knew it, I was biting into a pink slippery sphere. The egg tasted strongly of vinegar, but I managed to eat it all. I left the gas station excited to live in a city that is full of people eager to get to know newcomers and proud to teach them about Southern culture.
6) The ISJL’s annual education conference is a unique and inspiring event.
While I could go on and on about Education Director Rachel Stern’s infectious positive attitude or the education fellows’ dedication to honing their rapping skills, the Department of Community Engagement’s panel on Building Inclusive Communities stuck with me the most. The session addressed how congregations’ responses (or lack thereof) to issues like race, poverty, disability or mental illness leave some members of the Jewish community feeling invisible or unwelcome. Unless encouraged to do so, most people do not naturally talk about such difficult and sensitive topics. Yet, to my delight, I heard many conversations not only directly after the panel, but also for days afterwards addressing how conference participants and ISJL staff plan to approach these issues, and their own personal privileges, more mindfully and sensitively in the future.
7) There are more Jewish holidays than just Passover and Hanukkah
Those are the two I heard about growing up, but there are many more, and they all have incredible meaning and values behind them. Malkie (Schwartz) and I are brainstorming how to connect congregations with resources to aid with inclusion and awareness of minority Jews, interfaith families, LGBTQ Jews, and more. We quickly discovered that the easiest way to do this would be to link these social issues to the values behind various Jewish holidays – not just Passover and Hanukkah!
Stay tuned to Southern & Jewish and to our Facebook page for more updates on what the ISJL Community Engagement Department is up to this summer!
Late June is a special time at the ISJL office. Education Fellows are hard at work on programs, crafts and multimedia projects. The halls are lined with boxes of newly edited curriculum, which will be picked up by the Education Department‘s partner communities in just a few days. Everyone is preparing for the ISJL Education Conference, which takes place June 23-25 (Sunday through Tuesday) here in Jackson, Mississippi.
As we’re all busy prepping for the big event, please enjoy these pictures taken around the office.