Today’s guest post comes from Rabbi Hank Bamberger of Utica, New York, who spent some time traveling in the South this summer as part of the ISJL’s Rabbis on the Road program. A version of this piece first appeared in the newsletter of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, and is shared here with permission.
“You’re going WHERE in July?”
We couldn’t blame people for reacting that way. The answer was that my wife Sheila and I would be visiting four small congregations in four southern states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas – with a side trip to the URJ’s Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, all this under the auspices of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life – and all during the summer.
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Klein, who had served as the rabbi in Monroe, LA, sent us an email assuring us that it would only be hot outside. No one else was that encouraging.
In spite of the heat concerns, we headed South – and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Wherever we went, we were welcomed with true Southern hospitality. Each of the two Erev Shabbat services I conducted drew about a dozen and a half people. That may not sound like many, but percentage wise, it’s a lot. Consider this: Congregation Meir Chaim in McGehee, AR, has only seven families on its membership list!
Adult education in three congregations produced slightly lower numbers (!) but great enthusiasm. Talk at meals ranged from dealing with congregational matters to local and regional Jewish history to, inevitably, mutual acquaintances.
We even made some time to be tourists. The Clinton Library in Little Rock is worth a trip in itself, and if you go, the Little Rock Zoo is very nice as well. Of course, we saw lots of countryside. In nine days, we logged just over 1,500 miles of driving.
To top everything else off, the weather was mild (for summer in the South). Since our trip occurred during the terrible heat wave in the Northeast, it was hotter in Utica, NY than in Utica, MS. Go figure!
In short, we felt that we had made a contribution to those small congregations which work so hard to survive. A great way to spend our summer vacation, and I encourage other clergy interested in the Rabbis on the Road program to contact Rabbi Marshal Klaven at the ISJL.
This blog is written by Sam Gardner, who just finished his summer internship in the ISJL’s history department.
The Neshoba County Fair is not your typical county fair. Yes, it does have the rides, game booths, and fried delicacies, but this is where the ordinary ends and extraordinary begins at Neshoba.
Starting in 1889, the Neshoba County Fair is a long-standing Mississippi tradition, with two unique features: the cabins and the political speeches. Some of the cabins have been owned by the same families for generations. Although most owners reside in their cabin for the one week of the fair and the cabin is vacant the rest of the year, cabins can sell for as much as the most expensive house in the county. It’s prime real estate, hard to acquire.
Then, there are the speeches, traditionally made by state government officials, but also university presidents and even presidential nominee Ronald Reagan during his 1980 campaign. The two main speakers on the day I joined some other ISJL staff for a fair field trip were Mississippi’s Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn, and Governor Phil Bryant. The Phils are known for their strong conservative views, and in the weeks leading up to the fair, my fellow interns and I, all liberal-minded northerners, were excited to experience what some have described as “Woodstock for Mississippi Republicans.”
When we arrived at the fair, we saw colorful cabins with family names posted on the front, eccentric decorations, an unsettling number of confederate flags, and lots of white people. We walked over to Founder’s Square, the center of the fairgrounds, and made our way to the Pavilion, a large, open-air wooden structure with rows of benches and a podium at the front for the speakers.
Phillip Gunn spoke about new education requirements and charter school laws, intended to help children in failing school districts. His most memorable quote was on the topic of guns: “When it’s three in the morning and someone’s coming through my door, and I don’t know how many there are, I need to have more bullets and bigger guns than they have.” Like Gunn on guns, Governor Phil Bryant (pictured at left) was obviously in his element at Neshoba and delivered a free-wheeling and impassioned speech. When discussing a controversial new open carry gun law, he promised to veto any effort to overturn it “faster than a shot out of a Winchester.” His defense of gun rights and school prayer elicited loud cheers from the audience; I definitely felt out of place. Clearly, I was not in New York City anymore.
If conservative politics makes up one pillar of the fair, the other is southern hospitality. We were invited to eat lunch at the cabin of Dick Molpus, former Secretary of State and a longtime leader of the Democratic Party in Mississippi. Recently, Dick received attention on the Daily Show, including an on-air apology from Jon Stewart, who had made incorrect assumptions about him as a white office holder in Mississippi. In fact, Molpus, a native of Neshoba County, has been an outspoken advocate of racial justice and public education in Mississippi. He welcomed our group and served us a delicious southern (and kosher-style) lunch.
Before we left, Gabe and Lex, two co-workers, visited the Williams cabin on the advice of ESPN writer Wright Thompson. Gabe had tweeted Wright, a Mississippi native, the day before to ask his recommendations for the fair, and he told Gabe to go to the yellow cabin and ask for Snooky and Mary Lou. They were welcomed at the house and offered food and whiskey, and invited to join the hosts for a football tailgate at “The Grove” at Ole Miss in the fall. Southern hospitality at its finest.
After leaving the fair, we drove into Philadelphia, MS, site of the infamous murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. We visited Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church where there is a gravestone memorial for the three civil rights workers. After laying three stones on the marker, we headed back to Jackson.
My experience at the Neshoba County Fair was a microcosm of my time in Mississippi. I enjoyed my visit to the fair as people sat on their front porches schmoozing (though they might not use that word) and welcoming others into their cabins. The fun atmosphere of the fair is definitely palpable, and it is no wonder that people return year after year. However, being a New York Jew myself, having grown up literally three blocks away from where Andrew Goodman grew up, and having heard his brother talk at my high school a few years ago, I could not help but think about Philadelphia’s ugly history, which includes the murder of someone from such a similar background as myself.
I have definitely enjoyed my summer living in the South. I can now testify that in many ways, Mississippi is no less progressive than New York. However, I also cannot reconcile the fact that the Confederate flag, a symbol of oppression for so many Mississippians, continues to occupy a section of the state flag. This past weekend, I watched Wright Thompson’s documentary “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” which focuses on the Ole Miss 1962 football season and its relationship to the violent resistance to the school’s integration that same year. It accurately captures the questions and dilemmas that still puzzle me after spending the summer in Mississippi.
What is the appropriate way to deal with Mississippi’s history? How much can today’s problems be blamed on the past and how can we remember while also moving forward? Ghosts from Mississippi’s past still linger today, yet there has been so much positive change. I feel like I came to understand Mississippi’s ghosts – and its generosity- a little better at Neshoba. After my summer in Jackson meeting people from an assortment of backgrounds dedicated to making this state a better place, as I head home to New York, I am hopeful for Mississippi.
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.