Freedom Summer: The Fight for Universal Suffrage Continues

Heather Booth playing guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer and others during the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, 1964.

Courtesy of Wallace Roberts.

This essay is part of JWA’s 2020 Suffrage Series on the blog and was written in honor of Mae Waxman Schultz (1929-2020).

It was my mother, “a housewife,” who made me an active citizen. When I was young, she took me with her inside the holy of holies—the voting booth. She instilled in me the belief that failing to vote in any election—large or small—was an abdication of responsibility and a moral blemish. Putting flesh on the bones of female suffrage, my mother modeled many kinds of civic behavior. In the PTA, she advocated for current, engaging, and thought-provoking field trips. At local zoning meetings, she spoke out against changes detrimental to the neighborhood. She contacted local politicians to air her grievances. Long before I studied the gendered “public/private split” as a women’s historian, my mother showed me that the boundaries between the political and domestic worlds were permeable, especially for Jewish women ready to speak their minds.

And speak her mind she did, even from our living room couch. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of watching innumerable hours of the Watergate hearings with my mother. Though 60s activism passed her by, she took Watergate’s contempt for the US Constitution personally. With her keen nose for hypocrisy, she spoke back to those who were testifying. She reserved her greatest ire for Richard Nixon, her greatest empathy for Martha Mitchell, and her greatest approval for the spunky young Brooklyn Jewish Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman.

Approximately a decade younger than my mother, and not yet encumbered by child rearing or work, young northern Jewish women who went South to participate in the civil rights movement also took threats to the Constitution personally—specifically the denial of Black voting rights. They put their bodies on the line to ensure that African Americans had the same privilege they could take for granted—casting a ballot. 

The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project gave the greatest number of young Jewish Americans the opportunity to confront southern American racism. After much debate, COFO (the Council of Federated Organizations—a coalition of SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and SCLC working in Mississippi) activists decided to bring 1,000 northern white students for a full-out assault on Mississippi to draw national attention to the country’s most flagrantly racist state. The priority areas identified by COFO were voter registration, Freedom Schools, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Of the 1,000 white northern student volunteers who came South for Freedom Summer, a third were Jewish. Though the women tended to have more activism experience than the men, work assignments were gendered. While 20 percent of the white women volunteers requested the much more dangerous voter registration work, only 9 percent were so assigned. A higher percentage of women were asked to teach in the Freedom Schools, though they often joined voter registration workers in the evening for canvassing. 

Though Freedom School teachers had lower status within the Summer Project, they were actually part of long-standing efforts to use education to dismantle Jim Crow. While fear and repression limited the number of voters actually registered in the summer of 1964, the Freedom Schools challenged over 1,500 young people to think about why voting mattered and how to fight for their political rights. On the soil of the Mississippi Delta and beyond, they learned the history of slavery and the African American freedom struggle. Freedom school coordinator Liz Fusco wrote that including the Freedom Schools within the voter registration project made Mississippi Summer uniquely transformational. Freedom School teachers encouraged students to reject “sharecropper education” and to ask their own questions. The Freedom Schools also catalyzed institutional and intellectual change, laying the foundations for Head Start and African American Studies. Freedom School veteran Florence Howe helped to create Women’s Studies, just as field organizers Heather Booth and Vivian Rothstein became founders of the women’s liberation movement. 

Jewish women played critical roles in preparing for Freedom Summer. In the fall of 1963, Miriam Cohen worked on the Freedom Vote campaign, a precursor to the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Eighty thousand Black Mississippians voted in a mock election, challenging the tactics used to block them from voting. These tactics included poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as retaliation. Local authorities punished some activist communities by refusing to distribute federal commodities. That infuriated Roberta Galler, who, as executive director of Chicago Friends of SNCC, sent thousands of pounds of food and clothing to Mississippi during the cold winter of 1963–64. That same winter, Dottie Zellner evaluated Freedom Summer volunteer applications, weeding out anyone she thought was looking for adventure or naive about Mississippi’s danger. 

One person who could not be naive was Rita Schwerner Bender. An experienced CORE activist in New York, Rita, and her husband Mickey, were asked by COFO to come to Meridian, Mississippi in January to open a community center. As she answered daily phone calls threatening her “Jewish Bolshevik [N-word]-loving husband,” Rita was well-aware of Mississippi’s racism, antisemitism, and virulent hatred of “outside agitators.” Then, in 1964, her husband, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered. 

Though their deaths are now part of our national lore, few people know the details of Rita’s relentless search for the missing men, her fearless confrontation of President Lyndon Johnson, her uninterrupted SNCC activism after the bodies were found, and her life-long quest for justice. Rita Schwerner Bender earned a law degree and helped to bring Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen to trial in 2005, when he was convicted and sentenced to three twenty-year terms for the men’s deaths.

“Jewish mothers” such as Trudy Orris and Gladys Blum protected their own children and the Movement’s children by founding Parents of SNCC groups. “Jewish mothers” were also among the genteel but activist northern middle-class women of “Wednesdays in Mississippi” who flew down to Jackson weekly to build partnerships with local women to stem violence and promote Black enfranchisement. Positing education as common ground, they navigated around racial tension.

These few examples from the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project remind us that Jewish women’s relationship to citizenship has always involved more than voting. Before and after being part of the women’s suffrage movement, Jewish women connected other social movements and modeled myriad ways to give meaning to their citizenship. 

As recent protests sparked by George Floyd’s death and the ongoing Movement for Black Lives challenge ordinary people to get involved, what lessons can be learned from the ordinary/extraordinary Jewish women who went South? Among the many messages I “heard” from the women in my book, Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement, three stand out as particularly relevant for this moment. First, be humble and be willing to follow Black leadership. Second, invest time to build relationships with community members in their own spaces, tolerating the discomfort of being in the minority. Finally, make racial justice a life-long commitment—demonstrated through consistent actions rather than just words. 

In the turbulent 1960s and 70s, Jewish women like my mother and civil rights activists lived their values through their ways of being in the world. Among the legacies they handed down are the imperatives to think for ourselves and to question authority. In our current complex and fraught moment, they remind us that we too have these qualities within ourselves.

Topics: Voting Rights
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How to cite this page

Schultz, Debra L.. "Freedom Summer: The Fight for Universal Suffrage Continues." 18 August 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 29, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/suffrage/freedom-summer-fight-universal-suffrage-continues>.

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