How big of a “We” were the Jews in “We shall overcome”?
Since the nationwide release of “Selma” a week before the national holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I have wondered about the extent of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement. Was it just the Selma marches? Was our support also financial, in the voting booth? Or something more?
Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein concluded in their 1998 book “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time” that “Jews served in the forefront of the fight to end racial segregation in education, public accommodations and voting.” But wanting to hear it from someone who was actually in the “forefront,” I spoke with a Jewish recruit in the fight.
David Sookne may not sound like someone who served on the front lines of our nation’s battle for civil rights. The semi-retired mathematician and computer programmer — a resident of suburban Los Angeles with whom I pray a couple of times a month — is exacting in speech and even tempered.
He’s also blessed with an excellent memory: Sookne can name the people in the Roosevelt administration down to the level of the undersecretary.
So he vividly recalls his seven weeks spent in Alabama’s rural Crenshaw County as a foot soldier in the voter registration campaign for blacks organized by King through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was the summer of 1965 — after the Selma marches but before the passage of the Voting Rights Act that would be one of their outcomes.
Sookne, then 22 and enrolled in a doctoral program in in theoretical mathematics at the University of Chicago, signed up after following the news stories about the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer – a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964 in which several supporters and volunteers were murdered, including two young Jewish men.
After first driving home to Springfield, Md. — his parents didn’t want him to go — he headed for Atlanta.
Sookne had already had his first taste of the risks involved with working for civil rights.
During spring break in ‘65, he was among three dozen University of Chicago student volunteers in Somerville, Tenn., helping to build a structure to be used as a meeting place for voting rights activities.
In the local home of the organizer, John McFerren, who was black and a World War II veteran, Sookne heard a car pull up outside, a “pop-pop-pop” and the car pulling away.
“McFerren went to the living room wall and pulled something out,” Sookne recalled. It was a bullet from “a .22,” he recalled McFerren saying.
“‘They are just trying to scare us,’” McFerren said, according to Sookne. “If they were trying to kill us, they would use something bigger.’”
“That was my introduction to the danger of voter registration,” Sookne said.
As part of the training in Atlanta, Sookne and hundreds of volunteers heard King speak, as well as Bayard Rustin, a pacifist and civil rights leader. He also went through about a weeklong training session that would help prepare him for the domestic battle ahead.
“We practiced various things like not reacting to insults,” said Sookne, who had a student deferment from service in the Vietnam War. “We also practiced curling up on the ground, protecting vital organs in case we got beaten up.”
At the end of the week, the volunteers were given their assignments, and Sookne drove his pale green Volkswagen Beetle in a caravan that stopped first in Montgomery, Ala. From there he drove to the small town of Luverne, where he met up with six others, including organizer Bruce Hartford, also Jewish, who had found the group housing in a local residence.
Sookne recalled that about five minutes after they reached town, they were met by the local police chief, Harry Raupach.
“He told us to write down name, address and next of kin,” Sookne said, “just in case something happened to us.”
He also recalled that Raupach, who was originally from the North — “and not a Klansman,” Sookne said — saved the group more than once from being beaten up.
Knocking on people’s doors at a time when the passage of the Voting Rights Act seemed imminent — the law would make registration easier — made signing up voters a hard sell. So the group members turned their efforts toward another goal: integrating local restaurants.
In the town of Brantley, they ran into trouble.
“They didn’t want their all-white restaurants integrated,” Sookne said.
At a nonviolence training session on a ball field there, he recalled “three carloads of young men in their late teens and 20s” pulling up, with perhaps five of them getting out.
“They told us we better get out of Brantley or they would beat us up,” Sookne said.
Hartford, who was also present, has written that the locals — he refers to them as “All Klan” — had “ax handles and chains and clubs.”
Sookne said the volunteers made a dash for his VW.
On the highway trying to make it back to Luverne, he could see that two cars were in close pursuit, with perhaps others farther behind. When the highway widened a few miles before the relative safety of Luverne, Sookne recalled one of the cars passing, pulling in front and boxing him in.
“We slowed to about 25 miles per hour,” Sookne said.
He took a turnoff and veered left “onto a winding gravel road where the VW had an advantage.” His car pulled ahead, but turning onto a second highway to Luverne, the Klansmen were still in pursuit.
Suddenly, Hartford recalled, a couple of cars “filled with black men armed with shotguns” got between the VW and its pursuers. Hartford, who was in the car, believes some people in Brantley had called them about the situation.
“They escorted us back into Luverne. The Klan didn’t want to mess with them,” Hartford wrote.
In the fall, back at college, Sookne received a letter from King sent to all the SCLC volunteers — 20 to 30 percent of whom were Jewish, both Sookne and Hartford estimate.
“It is a rare privilege in life to participate in the fulfillment of an idea whose time has come,” the letter began.
For Sookne it was also a way, he said, of expressing “Tzedek, tzedek tirdoff” — “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Even if, as it turned out, he was also being pursued.
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at email@example.com.