For much of America, the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi civil rights workers’ murders on June 21 was a moment for quiet reflection. The lessons are familiar, but it’s useful to be reminded now and then: how far we’ve come in a half-century, the price that was paid, the tasks that remain and our stubborn differences.
For American Jews, though, the anniversary is more: it’s a rude wakeup call. As loudly as those three murders resonate across America’s generations, they thunder through American Jewish history. They cry out to us. And we’ve largely forgotten how to listen.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner. One was black; the other two were white and Jewish. That fact sent America a double-edged message. Southern blacks had been murdered and lynched by the thousands for decades. Few deaths were prosecuted. The rest of America scarcely noticed. Only the murder of two northern whites awakened the nation to the violence of Southern racism.
Still, America did wake up. Days after the three disappeared, Congress finally passed the long-stalled, historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act passed a year later. Race relations started changing. Their deaths weren’t in vain.
For Jews, though, the murders’ meaning was straightforward. Some 1,000 northern whites went to Mississippi to register black voters, following Schwerner and Goodman, during that Freedom Summer of 1964. Roughly half were Jewish. Indeed, among thousands of whites who went south for civil rights marches and Freedom Rides between 1961 and 1964, between a third and a half were Jewish. Those were our kids.
And not by coincidence. From the beginning, the civil rights movement was an organized campaign by blacks and Jews to end rampant discrimination against blacks and Jews. In 1945, when the NAACP and the American Jewish Congress together launched a state-by-state campaign to change laws, Jews and blacks were routinely excluded from whole neighborhoods, barred from countless jobs and restricted from most colleges.
By 1950 the Urban League, Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and others joined up. Unions and churches followed. The coalition, called the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, was chaired by NAACP director Roy Wilkins and staffed by Arnold Aronson, deputy director of what’s now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The famous black-Jewish alliance was not some liberal myth but an organization with an address and a letterhead.
It’s also a fact that the alliance turned rocky in the late 1960s. By the time the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, discrimination against Jews had largely disappeared. Parts of the black community turned inward, demanding control of the movement in the name of “black power.” Thousands of young Jewish activists were harshly ejected. In the 1970s black-Jewish feuding over affirmative action and racial quotas led to confrontations and finally an angry divorce.