Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacyhttp://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy
Community Organizing I: Freedom Summer
Jewish Participation Document Study
Vicki Gabriner Oral History Excerpt, Jewish Participation in the Civil Rights Movement
…One of the strong things I grew up with as a kid was some sense of fighting for social justice, and without realizing it, that that was rooted somehow in Jewish tradition. It was never specifically identified to me as such, and I don’t even know that that was what was driving people. But as I look back on it now, I know that that was part of that Jewish secular tradition of social justice.
Heather Booth statement excerpt on social values and Jewish tradition
I grew up in a family that had good social values, reflected in our Jewish heritage, culture, and history. When I was growing up, at one point I wanted to be a rabbi, but was told (at that time) women couldn’t be rabbis. I went to Israel when I graduated from high school in 1963, and the experience of Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum) had a transforming effect on me: I promised myself that in the face of injustice I would struggle for justice.
- What values or experiences do Vicki Gabriner and Heather Booth identify as influencing them?
- Where/how did they learn these values?
- Where did they have these experiences?
- What are some things you have learned within your family that shape the way you see the world and/or act in the world?
- Do you think Vicki Gabriner and Heather Booth were conscious of their motivations at the time? Do you think it matters if you know why you're doing something to help others or just that you do it? Why?
- Now that you've read these documents, would you change your 4 corner choice? Why or why not?
Freedom Summer Goals and Purposes Document Study
Context and Questions
The following documents come from a variety of sources and were written for many different reasons. What can we infer from these documents about the goals and purposes of Freedom Summer? (As you read each document, remember to consider who wrote it, when, and for what audience and purpose.)
Rita Schwerner CORE application letter excerpt
Since I have become active in CORE here in New York, I have become increasingly aware of the problems which exist in the Southern states. I have a strong desire to contribute in some small way, by the utilization of those skills which I possess, to the redress of the many grievances occurring daily. I wish to become an active participant rather than a passive onlooker. Realizing the Northern newspaper and radio accounts are often distorted…, I wish to acquire firsthand knowledge of existing conditions in the South…
As a teacher I have been working in South Jamaica, Queens where I not only have had experience in dealing with teenagers, but have become increasingly concerned with the conditions under which these children must live…
As my husband and I are in close agreement as to our philosophy and involvement in the civil rights struggle, I wish to work near him, under the direction of CORE, in whatever capacity I may be most useful. My hope is to someday pass on to the children we may have a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men than that world which was willed to us.
Freedom Summer excerpt, Why people participated
Discussion at Ohio orientation about why they were going: “‘Are you going,’ Vincent Harding started, ‘as “In” members of the society to pull the “Outs” in with you? Or are we all “Outs”? Are you going to bring the Negroes of Mississippi into the doubtful pleasures of middleclass existence, or to seek to build a new kind of existence in which words like ‘middle-class’ may no longer be relevant? Are we trying to make liberal readjustments or basic change?’ The floor took over.
White boy: ‘For me there is only one race, the human race. It’s one nation. Mississippi is our back yard as much as Harlem. I’ve had it good for along time. But I’ve seen too many people hungry for too long.’
Negro boy: ‘We have to try to change the South so that the people of the North will want to do better. The South is a battle-field: The North is in a stalemate. For us, it’s all intolerable. But we have to work where the situation is flexible enough for change. Open hate is preferable to hypocrisy – it can be moved.'
White girl: ‘There’s not enough justice and not enough liberty. There’s not enough truth and there’s not enough beauty. Who will work to make these things? It’s everyone’s job.’
Southern white boy: ‘I’m involved in this for my own freedom. We have to build a new South, a South ruled by law, democracy, and humanity. I couldn’t not have come.’
White boy: ‘I’m going because the worst thing after burning churches and murdering children is keeping silent.’”
Rita Schwerner Statement to Newspapers on the Discovery of Her Husband’s Body on 4th August, 1964.
My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain. If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded.
Why are you here?
Staying in character as a prospective volunteer who has come to this information session to decide whether or not to participate in Freedom Summer, think about your answers to the following questions and share them with your partner:
- Why am I here?
- What is motivating me to go or not go?
- Based on my skills and talents, which of the three main projects (Freedom Schools, voting registration, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) could I contribute to the most?
Community Organizing Document Study
- What do you see in this photograph (be as objective as possible in your description)?
- Based on what you see, what do you think is happening in this photograph?
- Freedom music was a type of community singing that was popular during the Civil Rights Movement. How do you think music helps build community?
Vicki Gabriner Oral History Excerpt, Challenges
JR: What were the greatest challenges for you in doing this kind of work?
VG: (laughter) You know, I hesitate because there was such – I was so impelled and compelled to do this work. The drive was so strong and it was a drive that came from inside of me. It wasn’t like someone said, “Oh, you should do this.” It wasn’t about Bob saying, “Oh, we have to do this,” and being man ahead about it. That is in some ways so different from how I feel about almost anything today that in a way on some level there was nothing difficult about it. Because I felt held in some way in a national – and around civil rights stuff in sort of a national energy, a national movement of which I felt part, which just made all the work in every difficult moment possible.
And I don’t think I’m romanticizing it as I look back on it. I remember there were just the most extraordinary moments in that work. I remember times being at a mass meeting inside a church and singing “We Shall Overcome” and knowing that there were white people outside in their cars, in their trucks, probably with guns, and feeling as though the roof were just going to lift off the church because the energy of the people with whom we were working was so intense. You know, the struggle – they were so involved in the struggle that it was palpable. It was palpable…
- At the end of this paragraph, Vicki describes being in a church while another group is waiting outside. These two groups are divided by color, space, and values. With which community do you think Vicki Gabriner identifies?
- What do you think she has in common with the community with which she identifies?
- What do you think she has in common with the other community?
- Based on these similarities and differences, what do you think were some things that were important in connecting people and forming communities during the Civil Rights Movement?
Voices of Freedom Summer Document Study
Letter to Mom and Dad from Bonnie
Dear Mom and Dad,
This letter is hard to write because I would like so much to communicate how I feel and I don’t know if I can. It is very hard to answer to your attitude that if I loved you I wouldn’t do this – hard, because the thought is cruel. I can only hope you have the sensitivity to understand that I can both love you very much and desire to go to Mississippi. I have no way of demonstrating my love. It is simply a fact and that is all I can say…
I hope you will accept my decision even if you do not agree with me. There comes a time when you have to do things which your parents do not agree with … Convictions are worthless in themselves. In fact, if they don’t become actions, they are worse than worthless – they become a force of evil in themselves. You can’t run away from a broadened awareness… if you try, it follows you in your conscience, or you become a self-deceiving person who has numbed some of his humanness. I think you have to live to the fullest extent to which you have gained an awareness or you are less than the human being you are capable of being … This doesn’t apply just to civil rights or social consciousness but to all the experiences of life…
Letter to Dad from Sylvie
The mood up here [in Oxford, Ohio] is, of course, very strained with those three guys who disappeared Sunday, dead, most likely. Saturday night, I ate dinner with the wife of one of them. She was telling me about all the great things she and her husband were working on. She looks younger than me. What does she do now? Give up the movement? What a terrible rotten life this is! I feel that the only meaningful type of work is the Movement but I don’t want myself or anyone I’ve met to have to die. I’m so shook up that death just doesn’t seem so awful anymore, though. I’m no different from anyone else and if they’re risking their lives, then so must I. But I just can’t comprehend why people must die to achieve something so basic and simple as Freedom…
Letter from Hattiesburg
Hattiesburg, July 4
Every time I talk to people, I hear about things which bring tears to my eyes. I have begun, finally, to feel deep inside me this horrible double existence Negroes have to lead in both North and South… the strategies they must learn to survive without either going crazy or being physically maimed – or destroyed. Mr. Reese describes how a Negro must learn to walk through a crowd: weaving, slightly hunched – shuffling helps – in order to be as humbly inconspicuous as possible… Then I hear from men who served in Korea or elsewhere, that they alone had no flag to fight for… I talked with a fellow whose closest buddy [in the Army] had been a white man from Mississippi; when they were homeward bound on the train and they crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the white man left his seat beside the Negro to change seats with another Negro. I could go on and on about all the people I’ve met… Baby, it takes coming down here to grasp all this no matter how many books we’ve read.
Letter to Jon from Heather Tobis Booth
To my brother,
…Last night I was a long time before sleeping, although I was extremely tired. Every shadow, every noise—the bark of a dog, the sound of a car—in my fear and exhaustion was turned into a terrorist’s approach…
“We are not afraid. Oh Lord, deep in my heart, I do believe, We Shall Overcome Someday” and then I think I began to truly understand what the words meant. Anyone who comes down here and is not afraid I think must be crazy as well as dangerous to this project where security is quite important. But the type of fear that they mean when they, when we, sing “we are not afraid” is the type that immobilizes…The songs help to dissipate the fear. Some of the words in the songs do not hold real meaning on their own, others become rather monotonous—but when they are sung in unison, or sung silently by oneself, they take on new meaning beyond words or rhythm…There is almost a religious quality about some of these songs, having little to do with the usual concept of a god. It has to do with the miracle that youth has organized to fight hatred and ignorance. It has to do with the holiness of the dignity of man. The god that makes such miracles is the god I do believe in when we sing “God is on our side.” I know I am on that god’s side. And I do hope he is on ours.
Jon, please be considerate to Mom and Dad. The fear I just expressed, I am sure they feel much more intensely without the relief of being here to know exactly how things are. Please don’t go defending me or attacking them if they are critical of the Project…
They said over the phone, “Did you know how much it takes to make a child?” and I thought of how much it took to make a Herbert Lee (or many others whose names I do not know)…I thought of how much it took to be a Negro in Mississippi twelve months a year for a lifetime. How can such a thing as a life be weighed?…
With constant love,
Heather [Tobis Booth]
Letter to Mother and Father from Ellen
Gulfport, August 12
Dear Mother and Father:
I have learned more about politics here from running my own precinct meetings that I could have from any Government professor… For the first time in my life, I am seeing what it is like to be poor, oppressed, and hated. And what I see here does not apply only to Gulfport or to Mississippi or even to the South … The people we’re killing in Viet Nam are the same people whom we’ve been killing for years in Mississippi. True, we didn’t tie the knot in Mississippi and we didn’t pull the trigger in Viet Nam – that is, we personally – but we’ve been standing behind the knot-tiers and the trigger-pullers too long.
This summer is only the briefest beginning of this experience, both for myself and for the Negroes of Mississippi.