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Remembering Jews who Fought for Black Civil Rights

January 14, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

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

“I am one freedom rider who will never, ever forget the assistance of Jews.”

Hank Thomas, a major figure in the American civil rights struggle and one of the first Freedom Riders who travelled throughout the American South in the 1960s to raise awareness of the struggle for Black rights, always remembered the many Jews who helped him.

In the 2011 documentary Freedom Riders, he recalled the key role American Jews played in calling for equal rights for Black Americans. “Let’s put it this way,” Thomas explained, “when Germany was defeated in World War II, headlines across the nation read ‘Allies defeat Germany.’ Well, we had allies, too. Half of the freedom riders were white, and of those whites, a very significant portion of them were Jews. Jews played a very significant part in our human rights struggle.”

Start of the Freedom Riders

In 1960, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling 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 layover in Richmond, Virginia, he entered a restaurant in the station, sat in the “whites only” section, and ordered a sandwich and a cup of tea. Arrested for trespassing, he sued the authorities for wrongful arrest in a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court. In its 1960 ruling, the Court barred discrimination in the interstate passenger transportation industry.

At the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965

Though it was illegal to discriminate against Black Americans on busses, bus cafes and waiting rooms, segregation continued to be the law of the land in much of the American South. Beginning in 1960, brave groups of Black and white Americans came together to travel throughout the South on public transportation, daring police to disrupt their activities, and bringing attention to the plight of Black Americans in the region. Known as Freedom Riders, over 400 people participated in these trips, often courting intense danger. 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 that time when Jewish activists collaborated with Black leaders. One night in 1962, Dresner found himself in Georgia, speaking with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “The Jewish people haven’t forgotten that they were slaves 32 centuries ago,” Dr. King noted, asking, “How will Negroes forget we were slaves only a century ago?”

“Not just 32 centuries ago,” Dresner replied to Dr. King. “We were slave laborers in the Nazi concentration camps too." Dr. King fell silent contemplating this brutal truth. “We need to learn not to be ashamed of our slave ancestors,” he replied. “Jews are proud of their ancestors.”

Orthodox Jews Supporting Civil Rights

Orthodox Jewish leaders were among the most eloquent defenders of the key Jewish tenet that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and possess equal human rights, not matter the color of their skin.

In April 1960, Jewish students travelled to Greensboro, North Carolina, to stand side by side with Black students protesting discrimination. Among the Jews attending the protest was a delegation from Yeshiva University. “As Jews we have a moral and religious duty to uphold the rights of our fellow man,” they told their school newspaper. “As Jews we must be in the vanguard of any movement which seeks to break the bars of discrimination.”

In 1962, when Northerners – many of whom were Jewish – took part in anti-discrimination protests in Selma, Alabama, Orthodox Jews were part of the movement, travelling to the South to stand as allies with Black Americans in their struggle for equal rights.

Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik wrote in his famous essay Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man, “From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color. Any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his or her skin constitutes loathsome barbarity.”

Freedom Summer

In 1964, after years of demonstrations against discrimination in the South, civil rights groups decided to focus on voting rights in Mississippi. Despite being eligible to vote, just 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 heeded the call and travelled south. Fully half of these volunteers were Jewish college students.

Freedom Summer wouldn’t be easy, the volunteers were told. It was likely that activists would be arrested or subject to violence. Volunteers were instructed to read books like Martin Luther King’s memoir Stride Toward Freedom and Killers of the Dream by Lillian smith to prepare.

Nothing could fully prepare the visitors for the level of violence they would endure in Mississippi. One Jewish activist from Cleveland, Arthur Lelyveld, recalled walking with some Black people down the street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when they were stopped by two armed white men who beat them up. Lelyveld was punched and kicked, struck 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 offering words of comfort, the local Jews begged him to leave. So precarious was the position of Jews in the town that they feared local bigots would target them too: “You’re going to get us burned or killed” 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 teamed up with a local Black activist, James Chaney, and prepared to register voters together.

Andrew Goodman was the youngest of the three activists. Just twenty years old, he was a junior at Queens College in New York. He loved acting in plays, and was also deeply committed to the cause of civil rights. Andrew traveled to Mississippi to help fight segregation.

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

James Chaney, 22, was from Meridian, Mississippi, and volunteered as a CORE organizer. The New York Times later noted that his family was “among the few relatively prosperous Negroes” in their town.

Local Klu Klux Klan members heard that these three men would be registering Black Americans to vote at a church near Philadelphia, Mississippi, and descended on the building. There was no voter drive in session, so the Klan members beat up the congregations and set fire to the church. On June 21, 1964, Andrew, Michael and James set off 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. He then plotted with his fellow Klansmen on how to murder the trio. Late that night, Price released the activists, then raced to intercept their car before it left the county. Price stopped their car once again, and took the three young men to a deserted spot, where Klu Klux Klan members were waiting. They shot Andrew and Michael and beat James to death. Their burned out car was found two days later, and it would be six weeks before the bodies of Andrew, Michael and James were discovered, buried on a local dairy farm.

Mississippi Burning

The murder of two Jewish New Yorkers galvanized the country. “Notified of the disappearance, the Department of Justice requested our involvement,” the FBI’s official website records. “(A) few hours later, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked us to lead the case. By late morning, we’d blanketed the area with agents, who began intensive interviews.” The FBI dubbed the investigation and subsequent trial “Mississippi Burning” because of the activists’ burned out car.

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

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

Speaking to The New York Times a year after the murder, Andrew Goodman’s parents expressed hope that their son’s death hadn’t been in vain. His murder “can be looked on as a catalyst that brought into sharp focus the conflicting attitudes in the South and the sting of conscience in other parts of the country, where prejudice exists in a subtler form.”

Legacy of Brotherhood

Later in the tension-filled summer of 1964, some Black Americans rioted in New York City and Rochester. When he heard that some of the stores damaged and looted in the riots were owned by Jews, civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was aghast – and appealed for people to remember Andrew Goodman and Michael Scherner in particular. “I am particularly pained to learn that a large percentage of the looted stores were owned by our Jewish friends since, as a group, the Jewish citizens of the United States 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 sacrifices.”

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

Today, the legacy of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and all the other Jews who worked and advocated for civil rights lives on. In these difficult times particularly, they deserve to be remembered and honored by all Americans for their bravery, their commitment to do what was right, and their steadfast determination to stand up and oppose injustice.

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