Living the Legacy

Share

Power, Privilege, and Responsibility

Unit 1 , Lesson 4

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

http://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy

Power, Privilege, and Responsibility

Document studies: 

"Letters Home" Document Study

Context

In 1964, many young northern white activists participated in a civil rights project called Mississippi Freedom Summer. Some of these activists shared their feelings and experiences in letters they wrote home to families and friends. While the letters below may not have been written by Jewish civil rights activists, they express views shared by many. (Note that the orientation and training program for Freedom Summer was held at Western College in Oxford, OH.)

Letter Home from Lew

Oxford, Ohio

Dear Mom and Jo,

The reception at Western College was not warm. I was surprised at how unfriendly and unextending people were. Small groups formed or had been formed and people seemed concerned with “fitting in.” I went to bed. Later that day (today) I went to register. I still felt uncomfortable but attempted to shake a few hands. (It wasn’t too bad.) Some people were friendly and helpful. Tremendous enthusiasm was generated when we all began singing after dinner. It was the spiritual revival type of singing and you know how I love that. We all must have sung for about 2 hours, and the previous in-grouping of Negroes and reservedness of whites seemed to disappear – but not really…Maybe we’ll be able to at the end of the summer, but right now we don’t know what it is to be a Negro and even if we did, the Negroes here would not accept us. It’s the old case of having to prove ourselves. In their eyes we’re rich middle or upperclass whites who have taken off a summer to help the Negro.

Intellectually, I think many of us whites can understand the Negroes’ resentment but emotionally we want to be “accepted” at face value. We want this acceptance because this is part of our reason for going down south, i.e., the basic worth of the individual. I’ve always thought that my relations with Negroes have been fairly honest. I’ve gone to a predominantly Negro high school and participated in athletics with them. I’ve gotten to know Negroes in college… I haven’t gone out of my way to meet them but those I have met I have gotten along well with, if not intimately. What I mean to say is that I never detected a “difference,” or an inability to communicate with one another… But what I am finding here is a different situation and perhaps a more honest one…

Love, Lew

Details

Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 5. Permission granted by Zephyr Press.


Discussion Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. When was this document written? (At the time of the events described? After the events described took place?)
  3. What type of document is this? Who was the intended audience for this document? How might this have influenced the content of the document?
  4. What kind of reception did Lew receive at Western College? How might you describe the atmosphere of in-groups and out-groups? Does it remind you of any experiences you've encountered?
  5. What kind of reception do you think Lew wanted/expected?
  6. According to Lew, how did the African American volunteers view the white Northern activists? How do you think Lew and the other white Northern activists viewed themselves? How might the difference between these perceptions cause tension between the two groups?
  7. Lew writes that "right now we don't know what it is to be a Negro." Does he think this is an important thing to know? If so, why? Why do you think this lack of knowledge could be a source of tension among the white and black activists?
  8. At the end of the letter Lew says, "But what I am finding here is a different situation and perhaps a more honest one…" How is it more honest? What issues divided whites and blacks in the Civil Rights Movement? How did the tensions Lew describes compare to the ideals and idealism of the Civil Rights Movement?

Letter to Peggy from Ellen

Dear Peggy:
… All whites who read [James] Baldwin ask, “Is he right? Do they really hate us?” I have never before talked to a Negro about his feelings towards whites. A wonderful Negro man from Detroit named Joe Harrison told me here at Oxford, “I always feel much more comfortable with Negroes than with whites. But I can become good friends with white people.”

And one SNCC worker – Frank Smith – said, “I grew up hating all white folks. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I learned that there could be good whites – and even now I sometimes wonder.”

So there is this great reluctance and distrust, born of generations of oppression and slavery… It seems that if more whites understood this – especially white liberals – race relations might be a lot less strained.

I have also discovered a lot about my own feelings about race. I grew up in an upper middle-class Westchester home, where my parents were good liberals, but I never knew any Negroes except the woman who cooked and cleaned for us. I loved her very much and she, me… We all called her “Sarah” while she called me “Ellen” and my parents “Mr. and Mrs.”

Consequently, although my parents told me that Negroes were just as good as whites – I must have seen them in the role of servants. Once, my mother tells me, when I was little, we were driving along a road near our house and passed a Negro woman waiting for a bus. “There’s somebody’s maid,” I said.

To arrive in Ohio, when there were 60 or 70 Negro kids my age – all close friends and rather cliquish at first – was a frightening experience. It was not that I looked down on them at all – quite the contrary: I was awed by them. For the first few days, I mostly hung around with the kids from Harvard. I sat with them at meals or in meetings, walking by the groups of Negro kids who also sat together at the table or under a tree on the grass… But as the week wore on, things began to change.

Ellen

Details

Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 6-7. Permission granted by Zephyr Press.


Discussion Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. When was this document written? (At the time of the events described? After the events described took place?)
  3. What type of document is this? Who was the intended audience for this document? How might this have influenced the content of the document?
  4. According to discussions that Ellen had with a few African American volunteers, how did they view white people? To what does Ellen credit their attitude? What does slavery have to do with it?
  5. What does Ellen mean when she calls her parents "good liberals"? What assumptions does that phrase carry?
  6. As "good liberals," what message do you think Ellen's parents gave her verbally about whites and blacks? What do you think is the difference between the liberalism of her parents and Ellen's own view of race relations?
  7. What kind of contact/relationship did Ellen have with African Americans growing up? What difference in respect/power/dignity are suggested by the ways that her family addressed their black maid and the way their maid addressed Ellen's family?
  8. What message was conveyed by her parents' actions and by the social context in which Ellen grew up? How was this message different from the verbal message her "good liberal" parents gave her?
  9. What are some examples from today of differences between someone's convictions, as expressed by what they say, and their actions?

"Power, Privilege, and Social Justice" Document Study

An Orphan in History excerpt, Jewish Experience

Paul Cowan grew up in an upper-middle-class American Jewish family where he absorbed the Jewish values of his mother, Polly Cowan, who believed that Jews had a special responsibility to help those who were less fortunate. Like his mother, Paul Cowan lived these values when he became a civil rights activist. But his experience also taught him that acting on Jewish values of social justice was a privilege not available to all American Jews. Working as a journalist, Cowan encountered many different people and situations that at times led him to reconsider his world views. Here he recounts an encounter with Jewish refugees from Europe, who opposed the building of low-income housing projects for blacks and Puerto Ricans in their neighborhood.

I spent one afternoon walking on the picket line with an elderly Jewish couple, Romanians who had fled to Russia during World War II, then migrated to Newark, Greenwich Village, and Forest Hills, where they owned a grocery story. They had been chased and harassed all their lives – first by Hitler, then by the Communists, then by blacks in Newark and Italians in the Village. They were convinced that people were better off among their own kind – an idea that sounded reactionary to me. When I mentioned that I was Jewish, the old woman asked me, “Do you think we will all be chased from New York?” What gruesome experience lingered in her mind, producing that question? Surely her desire for security wasn’t merely a form of bigotry…The crowd’s chant brought me back to Mississippi. Those white kids at the swimming pool had been muttering similar invectives as they drank their beer and looked at Polly’s motel room. So I asked the couple from Romania if the crowd’s chant about black people awakened memories of the chants that were directed at them because they were Jews?

“No,” the man said.

“You see, we’re trying to protect ourselves here. I wish the Jews had done the same thing in Europe.”

How could I see them as any more – or any less – oppressed than the blacks and Hispanics who might move into the project they were protesting so vehemently? Talking with them, and with others in their position, I realized that my flashbacks to Mississippi were inappropriate. The issue in Forest Hills involved two competing claims, not right and wrong.

When I published my article, I was afraid that my mother would think I was too soft on the Romanians and their counterparts; that I was explaining their racism away. In fact, she agreed with my article. But the chain of thought that began during those days in Forest Hills produced new questions, new sympathies that I could never quite explain to her, though my father understood them completely. For, though she has remained my political conscience, I realized that there was a contradiction in the belief she and I had always shared, that all Jews were mandated by history to be more ethical than other people. It allowed the Cowans, with our wealth, to argue that Jews with less money, less mobility, less access to powerful people than we had were somehow immoral if they organized their lives around their own self-interest. If they were survivors, we romanticized them without understanding them – or, on the other hand, assumed that their years in the camps should have made them less bigoted. If they were American-born people, who wanted the same security for their families as we had on Park Avenue, we tended to dismiss them as selfish business people or as bigots.

Details

Excerpts are from An Orphan in History: One Man's Triumphant Search for His Jewish Roots Copyright 2002 by Paul Cowan (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, www.jewishlights.com.


Discussion Questions

Assessment

  1. Who wrote this document? What was his role in the events he describes?
  2. When was this document written? (At the time of the events described? After the events described took place?) Why might when the document was written matter in what we learn from this document?
  3. What experiences does Paul Cowan bring to this event? How do they shape his initial view of the issues?
  4. Who are the picketers? What are they protesting? Why?
  5. What experiences do the picketers bring to this event? How do these experiences shape their view of the issues?
  6. In what ways are Paul Cowan and the picketers the same? In what ways are they different?

Analysis

  1. How does Paul Cowan's view of the issues change as a result of his experience on this picket line?
  2. Near the end of the document, Paul Cowan says, "I realized that there was a contradiction in the belief she and I had always shared, that all Jews were mandated by history to be more ethical than other people." What do you think the contradiction is that Cowan has discovered? How might you rewrite the phrase "all Jews were mandated by history to be more ethical than other people" to make it more accurately reflect the reality that Paul Cowan has discovered on the picket line?
  3. If, as in this case, none of the parties has power (Jews, Hispanics, and blacks are all portrayed as oppressed), is there a way to resolve the issue? Who else (present or not) might have the power to resolve the issue of competing claims? What is their responsibility?
  4. What other situations or conflicts does this story make you think of? Who has power in those situations? How, if at all, have they been resolved?

[ Back to top ]

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Power, Privilege, and Responsibility." (Viewed on April 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/civilrights/power-privilege-and-responsibility>.