Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Have you seen this image yet?
If not, can you guess which state it may be from? Believe it or not, this is a Mississippi initiative.
This glorious logo has been flooding my Facebook feed for weeks and is now getting the great press coverage it deserves – from local news outlets like the Jackson Free Press, and also from the likes of Time Magazine and some Posts—Washington and Huffington.
After the Mississippi House and Senate passed SB 2681—the controversial “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell’s Bakery and a self-proclaimed “white, heterosexual, conservative Christian male,” decided to take a stand.
“The examples people always use (when talking about how businesses could discriminate) always involve weddings and a florist or a baker (refusing service to a gay or lesbian couple), since those are the ones that have probably happened somewhere,” Moore said to the Jackson Free Press. “I thought it was ridiculous, and I wanted to get the message out that we are not discriminatory, and that I want to sell my product to as many people as will buy it.”
Since then, hundreds of stickers have been printed and put up in storefront windows across the state. The campaign is getting so much attention that the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical organization, is fighting back. This article from the Huffington Post quotes the AFA saying this is “not really a buying campaign, but it’s a bully campaign… carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture.”
In counterpoint, the Huffington Post author points out that those who agree with the AFA might want to consider this: “…bigots in Mississippi are still free to discriminate, but they do at a disadvantage to competitors who don’t… Profit is a great motivator for tolerance.”
It’s this last line that got me thinking historically about tolerance among merchants. As I’ve written in the past, many Jewish immigrants to Mississippi at the turn of the century worked their way up from peddlers to become merchants in towns across the state. A majority of these merchants differentiated themselves from other businesses through their relationships with the black community. Jewish merchants across the South, especially the ones that owned lower-end dry goods stores (of whom there were many) relied heavily on black customers.
And in this relationship, there was a definite distinction between Jews and other whites. Jewish store owners had the reputation of treating their black customers far better than other white merchants. Jews were more willing to extend credit to blacks, and to use terms of respect when speaking to them. Certainly, there was an economic incentive to treat their customers well, but as one civil rights leader in Mississippi noted, Jewish merchants were considered “the better of the white element that you had dealings with.” In her memoir The Jew Store, Stella Suberman recalls how her father hired the first black store clerk in their small Tennessee town in the 1930s. In the store owned by Edward Cohen’s family in Jackson, clerks called their blacks customers “Mr.” or “Mrs,” which was unusual at the time. As Cohen notes: “We observed blacks’ humanity, if not their equality.”
But years later during the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s, the pressure to conform to segregation laws was more intense. When city leaders were not willing to integrate, Jewish merchants could be caught in the middle between movement sit-ins and white resistance. While they may have held progressive ideals, Jewish merchants were worried about the impact joining the movement would have on their businesses, and how speaking up could potentially endanger them and their families.
Only after integration became inevitable, or the cost of continued segregation became too high, did they change their practices—but they did often take the lead in this process. In Memphis in the 1960s, a handful of Jewish department store owners organized meetings with other merchants to discuss the peaceful integration of their stores. Jack Goldsmith, owner of Goldsmith’s, and Mel Grinspan of the Shainberg’s store chain, led this effort, which was designed to have all the stores integrate together so none of them could be singled out for retribution.
In both instances, profit was a main motivator, but at different points in history a merchant’s practice of discrimination could either be bad or good for business. It’s why I find this “Religious Freedom” bill so dangerous. We’ve seen what happens when discrimination becomes acceptable and profitable, and the situation that it puts merchants in. Taking a look back helps frame the fight we are fighting today as social change threatens the sacred status quo.
The “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling” campaign is trying to point out that in Mississippi, in 2014, discrimination is bad for business. This law is bad for the people in the state and those thinking of doing business in the state. And twisting the logic behind something as important as “religious freedom” of the majority to enforce discrimination against a minority is just another level of how disturbing it is.
Having lived in this state for six years, I’ve learned that the loudest voices are often assumed to be the majority. It was some loud voices who got the “Religious Freedom Bill” passed—but now, some other loud voices are taking the megaphone—loud, proud business owners who will sell to anyone who’s buying, and are taking a bright-stickered-sign against discrimination.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.