Living the Legacy: a new take on Jews and the Civil Rights Movement
As soon as I begin talking about the history of Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, a few names immediately come up in conversation: Abraham Joshua Heschel. Micky Schwerner. Andrew Goodman.
These names and the images associated with them -- Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1965; the young faces of Schwerner and Goodman and their African American colleague James Chaney peering out from the stark, black-and-white MISSING poster -- are burned into the collective American Jewish consciousness. We celebrate Rabbi Heschel as a leading modern prophet; we mourn Schwerner and Goodman's early and violent demise at the hands of southern racists. We feel pride at the prominence of these Jewish figures in the Civil Rights Movement.
But these images, powerful as they are, do not tell the entire story. I began my work on Living the Legacy, JWA's new online curriculum on Jews and the Civil Rights Movement, by reflecting on some other stories that are not represented by these iconic images.
Judith Frieze intake image, June 21, 1961.Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Consider, for example these mug shots of the Freedom Rider Judy Frieze Wright, taken in 1961 after her arrest for the "crime" of sitting with black people in a bus station in Jackson, Mississippi. Like in the photos of Goodman and Schwerner, we see the face of a young, determined activist; the context of the photos tells us of the risks involved in her activism. These mug shots might remind us that Jews comprised approximately half of the white Freedom Riders; they should also remind us that the Jewish Freedom Riders included young women as well as men.
Heather Booth playing guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer during the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, 1964. Photo credit: Wallace Roberts. Permission to use granted by Heather Booth.
This photo of Heather Tobis Booth, playing guitar for the Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer and some others in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, gives us a glimpse into another piece of the story. Like Goodman and Schwerner, Booth went south as a participant in the Freedom Summer Project, which brought young volunteers (again, about half of them Jewish) to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote and to run "Freedom Schools" for the African American community. While the poster of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney testifies to the dangers of that project, this photo of Booth and Hamer captures a sweeter part of the experience - black and white women building interracial relationships, sharing music, connecting in a little bit of "down time" during what was otherwise a very stressful experience. This photo reminds us that social change happens not only through the ballot but also through the personal connections forged among individual activists.
Photograph of the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs at the March on Washington, 1963. Courtesy of The Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.
Another photo that immediately piqued my interest is this one, showing older Jewish ladies from the Emma Lazarus Federation at the March on Washington in 1963. These women, sitting unceremoniously on the ground in their dresses, pearls, and - my favorite detail - those hats, shook up my assumptions about what a civil rights activist looks like. What motivated them to join the March on Washington, to gather under the Jewish banner of the Emma Lazarus Federation? What did they think of the March, of John Lewis's provocative speech, of MLK's now-famous dream? What was their understanding of the Jewish role in the Civil Rights Movement?
And what about the perspectives of Southern Jews? How did they feel about the Civil Rights Movement? Did they greet with pride or with fear the young Jewish activists coming south? As Elaine Crystal describes in this documentary clip about the women of "Wednesdays in Mississippi," an organization of black and white northern and southern women who promoted civil rights, she was pulled between the perspective of northern women who felt that southerners weren't doing enough, and pressures from her family and the Jewish community to keep a lower profile in her work with Mississippians for Public Education. Ultimately, she says, "the focus of peaceful integration was important because we had to live what we were saying."
These are some of the stories we explore in the Living the Legacy (LTL) curriculum, which we have just launched. Designed for grades 8-12 in formal and informal Jewish educational settings, LTL draws on rich primary historical sources to highlight diverse voices of women and men, encouraging students to move beyond a simplistic, "feel good" narrative about Jewish social justice to one that is more complex and nuanced. It also offers students the opportunity to explore their own identities and social justice commitments and to draw connections between this history and their own lives. LTL is a flexible, easy to use curriculum, offering 16 lesson plans that can stand alone or be taught in various combinations.
I've been carrying Judy Wright, Heather Booth, the women of the Emma Lazarus Federation, and many other inspiring activists around with me for the past year as I've worked on this curriculum, and I'm so excited to be able to share them with you. I hope their stories and the many others featured in LTL will spur you to think differently about the history of Jews and social justice. I encourage you to check out the Living the Legacy curriculum and pass it on to your colleagues, families, and friends.