by Dina Wein­stein

Books on the 1964 Mis­sis­sip­pi Free­dom Sum­mer are clas­si­fied under African Amer­i­can his­to­ry and civ­il rights. But the project was rife with Jew­ish participation.

Orga­ni­za­tions from the civ­il rights move­ment includ­ing the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC, pro­nounced snick”) and the Con­gress of Racial Equal­i­ty (CORE) led the vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and edu­ca­tion cam­paign. We mark the 50th anniver­sary this sum­mer. The actu­al event went well beyond the best-known names — New York­ers Michael Schw­ern­er and Andrew Good­man with Mis­sis­sip­pi­an James Chaney. They were the civ­il rights work­ers who went miss­ing in the first days of the project and who lat­er were found bru­tal­ly mur­dered by local law enforce­ment con­nect­ed to the local Klan.

A num­ber of books recount the com­plex orga­ni­za­tion that went into the mas­sive vot­er reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves and edu­ca­tion­al efforts that set up Free­dom Schools in the state with the rep­u­ta­tion for being the most racist and bru­tal. There were an esti­mat­ed 650 vol­un­teers, most­ly North­ern­ers, most­ly white, and most­ly students.

Read­ing these sto­ries links the Jew­ish Amer­i­can nar­ra­tive to the African Amer­i­can efforts to stamp out dis­crim­i­na­tion. Many of these long unsung heroes for democ­ra­cy and diver­si­ty were inspired by the injus­tice of the Holo­caust. The civ­il rights work­ers and the sum­mer vol­un­teers chal­lenged the road­blocks set up by the state of Mis­sis­sip­pi to keep Blacks from vot­ing, get­ting a decent edu­ca­tion, and hold­ing elect­ed offices.

Free­dom Sum­mer by aca­d­e­m­ic Doug McAdam (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1988) traces the chronol­o­gy of events with voic­es from the Free­dom Sum­mer vol­un­teers them­selves. McAdam con­duct­ed numer­ous addi­tion­al sur­veys and inter­views with vol­un­teers. He traced the ori­gins of the project from the search for vol­un­teers, the unique and jar­ring train­ing, through the imme­di­ate impact of Free­dom Sum­mer. He delves into the lessons of Mis­sis­sip­pi with the par­tic­i­pants, find­ing out how the vol­un­teers and soci­ety were impact­ed through the 1970s.

Back in 1964, orga­niz­ers used a WATS line in the Mag­no­lia State to doc­u­ment the vio­lence and orga­nize movements.

They logged:

4 project work­ers killed
4 per­sons crit­i­cal­ly wound­ed
80 work­ers beat­en
1000 arrests
37 church­es bombed or burned
30 black homes or busi­ness­es bombed or burned

An epic read, McAdam’s pho­to­graph­ic inserts doc­u­ment­ing the events include images of sweaty young women teach­ing Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans in rudi­men­ta­ry Free­dom Schools and young male col­lege stu­dents orga­niz­ing vot­er reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves. I was riv­et­ed by the pho­to­graph of the young, whip­pet-thin wid­ow Rita Schw­ern­er, who told the sec­ond group of Free­dom Sum­mer par­tic­i­pants train­ing in Ohio that her husband’s dis­ap­pear­ance only made it more impor­tant that the project go forward.

Bruce Watson’s 2010 book Free­dom Sum­mer: The Sav­age Sea­son That Made Mis­sis­sip­pi Burn and Made Amer­i­ca a Democ­ra­cy (Viking) is a pow­er­ful nar­ra­tive. Wat­son links Free­dom Summer’s impact to the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry and the elec­tion of the first black pres­i­dent. It is root­ed in the African-Amer­i­can vic­tims and heroes includ­ing Free­dom Sum­mer orga­niz­er Bob Moses.

Wat­son is direct about the con­tro­ver­sial nature of Free­dom Sum­mer. He wrote that SNCC had braved Mis­sis­sip­pi when no one else would. They still bore the scars — bloody welts, bro­ken bones, bul­let wounds you could put your fin­ger in. And now a bunch of white col­lege kids with names like Pam and Geoff were being invit­ed to Mis­sis­sip­pi to gath­er head­lines and plau­dits for bravery.”

Their names also includ­ed: Jacob Blum, Paul Cowen, Bob Fein­glass, Bar­ney Frank, Adam Klein, Ruth Koenig, Rita Koplowitz, Robert Man­del, Sara Lieber, Bet­ty Levy, Mark Levy, Michael Lip­sky, Judy Mich­e­lowsky, Ira Lan­dess, Mendy Sam­stein, Nan­cy Sam­stein, Peter Rabi­nowitz, Gretchen Schwartz, and Ellen Siegel.

Watson’s descrip­tive writ­ing cap­tures the often pam­pered par­tic­i­pants’ youth­ful ide­al­ism, their ela­tion con­nect­ing with black Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans, espe­cial­ly the intel­lec­tu­al hunger and the pal­pa­ble fear. Watson’s research on the Schw­ern­ers and Andrew Good­man and his fam­i­ly paints a pic­ture of their pas­sion for civ­il rights.

In the cen­ter pho­to-spread of a vol­un­teer bathing next to a hand pump, a stu­dent engag­ing in door-to-door vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, and an ide­al­is­tic teacher with her stu­dents’ work is an image of Rab­bi Arthur Lelyveld beat­en and bloody on a vot­er reg­is­tra­tion for­ay in Hattiesburg.

Let­ters from Mis­sis­sip­pi by Eliz­a­beth Suther­land Mar­tinez, pub­lished by McGraw Hill in 1965, is full of the raw emo­tion and feel­ings the par­tic­i­pants expressed to their par­ents and friends as the events were unfold­ing. You can feel the exhil­a­ra­tion, fear, heat, and mos­qui­tos. The book has a quilt-like qual­i­ty uti­liz­ing the actu­al words of the vol­un­teers. Batesville wel­comed us trium­phantly — at least Black Batesville did….. Some­times when we pass by, the chil­dren cheer.”

The book fol­lows the char­ac­ters fight­ing their bat­tles with vio­lent red­necks, the heat, and pover­ty. There are also vic­to­ries. One Free­dom School teacher wrote: The atmos­phere in class is unbelievable….They are excit­ed about learn­ing. They drain me of every­thing that I have to offer so that I go home at night com­plete­ly exhaust­ed and happy.”

Read­ers may come away deflat­ed, like the par­tic­i­pants them­selves as they left the Mag­no­lia State. The Mis­sis­sip­pi Free­dom Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty was not seat­ed on the floor of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion and racism did not dis­ap­pear after 1964.

These books are a win­dow into the strength of inter-racial coali­tions of the ear­ly-1960s and the ide­al­ists who participated.

If you’re inter­est­ed in find­ing out more about the Free­dom Sum­mer, check out the events and loca­tions for the trav­el­ing exhib­it A Free­dom Sum­mer Exhib­it for Stu­dents from the Wis­con­sin His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety,” here.

Dina Wein­stein is a Mia­mi, Flori­da-based jour­nal­ist cur­rent­ly research­ing Jews in St. Augus­tine, Flori­da dur­ing the 1960s era civ­il rights strug­gle there with a grant from the South­ern Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety. She men­tors young jour­nal­ists as an advis­er at the Mia­mi Dade Col­lege stu­dent news­pa­per The Reporter. Wein­stein has taught jour­nal­ism and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions at a num­ber of col­leges includ­ing Mia­mi Dade Col­lege. She is a Boston native and a grad­u­ate of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism and Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School for the Arts.

Relat­ed Content: