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How To Honor The Legacy Of The Jewish And Black Activists Murdered 55 Years Ago

Fifty-five years ago, three young volunteers—one black Christian and two white Jews—working to register voters drove into a Mississippi town to investigate why a black church had just burned to the ground.

They never made it home.

Mississippi murders of three civil rights activists

Image by Getty Images

On June 21, 1964, local police officers arrested James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. After being held for a number of hours, the young men were released—only to be abducted by Klansmen colluding with law enforcement, brutally murdered, and buried. Even as the FBI searched local lakes and fields for their bodies, people were spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories: Maybe they had staged their own disappearance and were hiding in New York City.

For many, the murders of these three young men were one of the touchstone moments of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement, along with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma in 1965. These moments are often invoked with nostalgia for the Black-Jewish solidarity of a bygone era.

But the complicated realities of the historic record are more revealing, especially in this moment when white nationalism has been politically mainstreamed, as Jewish people are murdered in synagogues, and black churches continue to burn. How should we understand the lessons of this history in this current moment?

For me, as a black Jewish woman, born and raised in the South, this history is a deeply personal reminder of our nation’s painful legacy of violent terror motivated by intersecting forms of hatred, including racism and anti-Semitism—and it should remind us where our focus is needed now.

Sadly, while much progress has been made, this legacy of anti-Semitic and racist violence continues in the present day. The deadliest attack on a Jewish house of worship did not take place decades ago, when the anti-Semitic KKK was terrorizing civil rights activists across the South, but last year, when a 21st-century white nationalist, fueled by a hatred of immigrants, opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

And just last week, a Louisiana man was charged with committing arson against three historically black churches, a favored tactic of intimidation and terror used by KKK and other violent racists throughout American history.

Across our nation, white nationalism, and the racism and anti-Semitism that undergirds it, is spreading virulently. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a 50% increase in white nationalist groups from 2017-2018, with 81 people murdered by individuals influenced by the alt-right in the last five years.

The Anti-Defamation League reported a surge of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2017, a 60% increase from the year before. In many ways, these statistics should be no surprise: the alarming spread of white nationalist content online through social media and other platforms, allows this hateful ideology to rapidly reach and radicalize a vast audience.

And no conversation about white nationalism in modern America is complete without a discussion of how the President of the United States and his allies are adding fuel to this raging fire by mainstreaming hatred in American politics embracing white nationalism in their words and deeds.

We all remember when the president notoriously called neo-Nazis and white supremacists ‘very fine people’ after the Charlottesville white nationalist rally in 2017, but his policies, like the Muslim Ban and the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the southern border, are attempts to put white nationalist ideology into action.

The GOP has also brought back the voter suppression efforts of the 1960s that Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were working against, implementing restrictive voting laws designed to suppress the votes of black people in particular and gaming the 2020 Census to disenfranchise immigrant communities. Together, these policies seek to prevent the majority of Americans who oppose the administration’s hateful policies from exercising their power.

How do we respond to the hatred spreading across our country, including from the highest office in the land? The Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner murders are not just a tragic moment in civil rights history; they also represent a profound example of the power of solidarity between our communities. Their legacy is a call to action for us: Jews of all races, Black Americans, and every single one of us threatened by the hateful ideology of white nationalism.

We’ve seen countless examples of this kind of solidarity over the past few years, from the hundreds of activists, lawyers and concerned citizens who rushed to airports to welcome and support our Muslim brothers and sisters after Trump’s announcement of the first ‘Muslim ban’, to the millions of dollars raised by Americans of all races and backgrounds to help rebuild the recently burned-down Black churches in Louisiana. Next week, a nationwide coalition of Black Americans, Jewish Americans and millions of others will join together in a week of action to demand that Congress restore the Voting Rights Act, an essential step toward ensuring that those who speak out against white nationalism and all forms of hatred are fairly and fully represented in the halls of power.

Americans deserve a nation free of hatred, bigotry and radical ideologues who seek to further advance the cause of white nationalism and harm those who do not share their dangerous vision—but it isn’t enough to deserve it. We must be united agents in building it.

And we can’t be distracted when those advancing the cause of hatred cynically try to divide us, to prevent us from working together to defeat them. A vibrant democracy that reflects the diversity of America is not only the principle antidote to white nationalism, it is the principle way we fulfill a reimagining of the American dream that never applied to many of us.

And the only way we get there is together.

Ginna Green is the Chief Strategy Officer of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action. She is a Jewish woman of color.

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