Remembering Jews who Fought for Black Civil Rights

In the 1960s, hundreds of Jews worked tirelessly to promote civil rights. Two of them were murdered.

“I am a freedom rider who will never forget the help of Jews.”

Hank Thomas, an important figure in the American civil rights struggle and one of the first Freedom Riders to travel the American South in the 1960s to raise awareness of the struggle for black rights, always remembered the many Jews who met him helped.

In the 2011 documentary Freedom Riders, he recalled the key role American Jews played in calling for equality for black Americans. “Let’s put it that way,” explained Thomas, “when Germany was defeated in World War II, the national headlines were“ Allies Defeat Germany. ”We also had allies. Half of the Freedom Riders were white, and of those whites were a very significant part Jews. Jews played a very important role in our human rights struggle. “

Start of the Freedom Riders

In 1960 the US Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v Virginia. The case was brought by Bruce Boynton, a black student at Harvard Law School. In 1958, he bought a bus ticket from Washington DC to his home in Montgomery, Alabama. During a 40-minute stay in Richmond, Virginia, he walked into a restaurant on the station, sat in the Whites Only section, and ordered a sandwich and a cup of tea. He was arrested for trespassing and sued the authorities for unlawful arrest in a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court. In its 1960 decision, the Court of Justice prohibited discrimination in interstate movement of people.

On the March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965

Although it was illegal to discriminate against black Americans on buses, bus cafes, and waiting rooms, segregation continued to be the law of the country in much of the American South. From 1960 onwards, brave groups of black and white Americans came together to travel the south by public transport. They dared the police to interrupt their activities and drew attention to the plight of black Americans in the area. Known as the Freedom Riders, over 400 people took part in these trips, often hoping for great dangers. Many of them were Jews.

Israel Dresner with Martin Luther King Jr.

In the documentary Freedom Riders, Israel Dresner describes the intensity and excitement of the time when Jewish activists worked with black leaders. One night in 1962, Dresner was in Georgia talking to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “The Jewish people have not forgotten that they were slaves 32 centuries ago,” noted Dr. King asked, “How are negroes going to forget us? were slaves only a century ago? “

“Not just 32 centuries ago,” replied Dresner Dr. King. “We were also slave laborers in the Nazi concentration camps.” Dr. King paused, pondering this brutal truth. “We must learn not to be ashamed of our slave ancestors,” he replied. “Jews are proud of their ancestors.”

Orthodox Jews who support civil rights

Orthodox Jewish leaders were among the most eloquent defenders of the most important Jewish principle that all people were created in the image of God by Elohim and have equal human rights, regardless of skin color.

In April 1960, Jewish students traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina to stand side by side with black students protesting against discrimination. Among the Jews participating in the protest was a delegation from Yeshiva University. “As Jews, we have a moral and religious duty to uphold the rights of our fellow human beings,” they told their school newspaper. “As Jews, we have to lead any movement that tries to break through the boundaries of discrimination.”

When the northerners – many of whom were Jews – took part in anti-discrimination protests in Selma, Alabama, in 1962, Orthodox Jews were part of the movement and traveled south to act as allies of black Americans in their struggle for equality.

Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik wrote in his famous essay Civil Rights and Human Dignity: “From the point of view of the Torah, there can be no difference between one person and another based on race or color. Any discrimination shown to a person on the basis of the color of their skin is a hideous barbarism. “

Freedom summer

In 1964, after years of anti-discrimination demonstrations in the south, civil rights groups decided to focus on voting rights in Mississippi. Although eligible to vote, only 7% of Black Mississippians were registered to vote in the early 1960s. Activists were invited to come to the state and register black voters: over a thousand people followed the call and traveled south. Half of these volunteers were Jewish students.

Freedom Summer wouldn’t be easy, the volunteers were told. Activists were likely to be arrested or subjected to violence. Volunteers were instructed to read books such as Martin Luther King’s memoir Stride Toward Freedom and Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith in order to prepare them.

Nothing could fully prepare visitors for the level of violence they would endure in Mississippi. A Cleveland Jewish activist, Arthur Lelyveld, remembered walking down the street with some blacks in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when they were stopped by two armed white men who beat them up. Lelyveld was beaten and kicked, hit on the head with a tire iron and wound up in the hospital.

The next day he was surprised to see a group of local Jews visiting him. Instead of saying comforting words, the local Jews asked him to leave. The position of the Jews in the city was so precarious that they feared local bigots would attack them too: “They will burn us or kill us” if he stayed, they told him.

On June 14, 1964, two Jewish volunteers from New York arrived in Mississippi, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. They have teamed up with a local black activist, James Chaney, and are preparing to register voters together.

Andrew Goodman was the youngest of the three activists. When he was only twenty, he was a junior at Queens College in New York. He loved acting in plays and was also very committed to civil rights. Andrew traveled to Mississippi to fight segregation.

Michael Schwerner was 24 years old and had studied sociology in Cornell and Columbia. He and his young wife Rita were dedicated to civil rights, and Michael applied to Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), one of the key groups behind Freedom Summer. “I have an emotional need to offer my services to the south,” he wrote in his application.

James Chaney, 22, was from Meridian, Mississippi and volunteered to be a CORE organizer. The New York Times later found that his family was “among the few relatively wealthy Negroes” in their city.

Local Klu Klux Klan members heard that these three men were registering black Americans to vote at a church near Philadelphia, Mississippi, and stepped down onto the building. There was no election campaign at the meeting, so the Klan members beat up the congregations and set the church on fire. On June 21, 1964, Andrew, Michael, and James set out to investigate this outrageous crime. On the way back, the car they were driving was stopped for speeding by Cecil Ray Price, the deputy sheriff of Neshoba County – and a dedicated member of the Klu Klux Klan.

Sheriff Price arrested the three Freedom Riders and locked them in the county jail. Then he and his fellow Klansmen planned how to murder the trio. Late that night, Price released the activists and ran to intercept their car before it left the county. Price stopped again and took the three young men to an abandoned place where members of the Klu Klux Klan were waiting. They shot Andrew and Michael and beat James to death. Her burned-out car was found two days later, and it would be six weeks before the bodies of Andrew, Michael, and James were discovered and buried at a local dairy farm.

Mississippi is on fire

The murder of two Jewish New Yorkers got the country going. “The Justice Department has been informed of the disappearance and asked for our involvement,” the FBI official website said. (A) A few hours later, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked us to head the case. By late morning we had covered the area with agents who were starting intensive interviews. “The FBI called the investigation and trial Mississippi Burning because of the activists’ burned-out car.

Dr. King holds up a picture of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman at a press conference following their disappearance

The case attracted unprecedented attention. Eventually the FBI brought charges against 18 defendants who were involved in the murders. Three years later, seven were convicted of crimes, but none of murder. One of the killers, Edgar Ray Killen, was acquitted after a juror said she couldn’t find it in her to convict a preacher. He was tried 41 years later when he was convicted of manslaughter in 2005.

Andrew Goodman’s parents spoke to the New York Times a year after the murder, expressing hope that their son’s death had not been in vain. His murder “can be seen as a catalyst that has focused on conflicting attitudes in the south and remorse in other parts of the country where prejudices exist in more subtle forms.”

Legacy of the Brotherhood

Later in the tense summer of 1964, some black Americans rioted in New York City and Rochester. Upon hearing that some of the businesses damaged and looted in the riot were owned by Jews, civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was appalled – and urged people to remember Andrew Goodman and Michael Scherner in particular. “It pains me especially to learn that a large percentage of the businesses looted belonged to our Jewish friends, as the Jewish citizens of the United States as a group have always stood for freedom, justice, and an end to bigotry. Our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood in tangible ways, often at great personal sacrifice. “

“(W) ho will ever forget the victims of two Jewish lives, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in Mississippi last June,” he asked. “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people made to the Negro’s struggle for freedom – it was so great.”

Today the legacy of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and all other Jews who worked and stood up for civil rights lives on. Especially in these troubled times, they deserve to be remembered and honored by all Americans for their courage, commitment to do what’s right, and unwavering determination to stand up and stand up to injustice.

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