Civil Rights Movement in the United States
The image of Rita Levant Schwerner (b. 1942), the grieving but stoic widow of the disappeared Michael Schwerner, remains emblematic of the sacrifices made for the southern civil rights movement. In the popular mind, it is well known that two Jewish men—Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—along with their black colleague James Chaney, were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. What most people do not know is that Andrew Goodman had been in Mississippi for one day when he was killed. Rita Schwerner had been working with her husband for six months to open a civil rights project in Meridian when he was targeted for murder by a white supremacist gang. Despite her grief and because of her passionate political commitment, Rita Schwerner managed to point out to the media that the only reason they noted James Chaney’s death was because he was murdered with two white men. Failure to recognize Rita Schwerner as an activist in her own right reinforces the invisibility of all the Jewish women who put themselves on the line to fight racism in the civil rights movement.
Despite widespread awareness of significant contributions to the movement by Jewish women, the documentary record and public perception reflect the roles and experiences of men. Scholarship in American Jewish history, civil rights history, and women’s studies does not directly address the contributions of Jewish women. Nor does it ask what Jewish cultural influences primed young Jewish women to respond (in numbers disproportionate to their representation in the population) when the civil rights movement put out the call.
The kinds of roles Jewish women played helped build the infrastructure of a remarkably effective movement that did miraculous things with slender resources. They managed and connected people, money, resources, and information. Jewish women worked as campus organizers, fund-raisers, demonstrators and desegregators, voter registration workers, fieldworkers and organizers, Freedom School teachers, strategists, communications coordinators, human resource managers, economic cooperative organizers, typists, cooks, and sympathetic listeners. Among Jewish women professionals who volunteered their skills were law students and lawyers, doctors, and social workers.
Jewish women who found their way to the southern movement had to juggle multiple senses of identity. They were simultaneously relatively privileged, well-educated northern students who could choose to come south to work in a social justice movement; they were the children of Jews struggling to assimilate into American society without losing their Jewish connection; they were women from families and a culture that both encouraged and limited their life choices; they were white women in a movement led most visibly by black men; they were competent and experienced women willing to take action before the feminist movement made it legitimate to do so; and they were secular Jews in a black Christian movement working in the antisemitic and virulently racist and sexist South.
With commitment, courage, and individual initiative, a number of northern Jewish women went to the South even before the 1963, 1964, and 1965 summer projects provided an organizational framework for recruiting northern white college students. In 1960, New Yorker Dorothy Miller (b. 1938) learned and practiced nonviolent resistance techniques, going to jail in Miami during a summer workshop sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She returned to Atlanta in 1961 to do research for the Southern Regional Council. A volunteer for the nascent Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960, Miller later joined its staff. Because of her writing skills, she was assigned to work with Julian Bond to build SNCC’s communications and outreach efforts. She and her future husband, Robert Zellner (SNCC’s first white field secretary), remained among SNCC’s inner circle until 1967, when it was decided that the SNCC staff should be all black.
Carol Ruth Silver (b. 1938) responded to CORE’s 1961 radio call for freedom riders, and she was the only woman on her biracial freedom-riding bus. Arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 7, 1961, Silver spent the next forty days in jail. After the first few days, she was joined by thirteen more white women freedom riders, over half of them Jewish. The young women entertained themselves by reading, doing exercises, and playing chess (Silver had fashioned a chess set out of white bread). They had a party that included the hora. More important, they had philosophical discussions about nonviolence, learned to collaborate with black women activists jailed in nearby (segregated) cells, and developed the sensitivity and skills to be northern white allies in a black-led southern movement.
Having grown up in a woman-headed household that included her black music teacher, Faith Holsaert (b. 1943) had acquired some of these skills already. Yet she was only eighteen years old when she went to the South for the first time to participate in a Baltimore sit-in. A Barnard College freshman, she spent Christmas break 1961 in jail. In the summer of 1962, Holsaert left school for a year to work with SNCC in Albany, Georgia, on one of the movement’s first mass voter registration campaigns. One of the few white women fieldworkers in the South before the 1964 summer project, Holsaert may have been SNCC’s first Jewish woman field organizer.
Jewish women’s organizational skills enabled them to play critical coordinating roles for the movement. Roberta Galler (1936 - 2014) was a founder and first executive secretary of Chicago Friends of SNCC. After doing fund-raising, organizing, and press outreach in Chicago for several years, SNCC’s Lawrence Guyot asked Galler to come to Mississippi in the fall of 1964 to open the first statewide office of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). She arrived after the failure to seat the MFDP delegation (which contended it was more representative of Mississippi’s Democratic citizens than the all-white delegation) at the Atlantic City Democratic National Convention. Galler worked around the clock with colleagues to lay the groundwork for MFDP’s Congressional Challenge, which would attempt to oppose the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation. Galler worked on a variety of projects in the South until 1968.
Jewish women professionals also contributed their skills to the southern movement. Law clerk Elizabeth Holtzman (a future member of the United States House of Representatives) was involved in the defense of the “Albany Nine,” a group of activists from Albany, Georgia, indicted by the federal government in 1963. Among those indicted was Joni Rabinowitz, another Jewish woman activist and the daughter of radical lawyer Victor Rabinowitz.
Dr. June Finer (b. 1935) spent the summer of 1964 working with the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) in Mississippi. She returned the following year to work as MCHR’s southern coordinator, assigning tasks to the many volunteer doctors, nurses, and psychologists who came to the South to provide support. Florence Howe (b. 1929), a professor at Goucher College, coordinated the Blair Street Freedom School in Jackson, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964. Howe, who went on to establish the Feminist Press, attributes her groundbreaking work in women’s studies to lessons learned in Mississippi.
In another type of role, Jewish mothers organized Parents of SNCC groups around the country and were instrumental in fund-raising. Gertrude (Trudy) Orris (b. 1916) ran the New York Parents of SNCC group and spent much time on the phone with the Atlanta office, monitoring developments in the South and trying to get media and government attention focused there. At her New York home, Orris hosted young black activists from all over the South, arranging for their housing, medical care, and fund-raising events.
Some Jewish women volunteers stayed on after the 1964 Summer Project, while others came to the South in 1965. From January to June 1965, Harriet Tanzman (b. 1940), one of the few white women fieldworkers for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, worked in Selma, Alabama. She taught literacy and practical skills to small groups of mostly black women, some of whom went on for training that enabled them to teach their own literacy classes. Elaine DeLott (b. 1942), coordinator of federal programs for the Council of Federated Organizations (Mississippi’s civil rights umbrella group), helped organize an okra cooperative in Batesville, Mississippi, that was in existence for fifteen years.
Jewish women who went to the South for the civil rights movement demonstrated a willingness to put their bodies on the line to fight racism. This was a very transgressive act on a number of levels. First, it remains extraordinary for any white person in the United States to be a “race traitor,” risking his or her life to fight racism. Second, for women, going to the South directly challenged traditional gender roles before the second wave of the women’s movement made such challenges less individualized acts. Finally, going to the South required negotiating Jewish cultural and political ambivalence about becoming visible as critics of American society. This was precisely what many of the women’s second-generation parents, engaged in the project of assimilation and upward mobility, most feared, even as they recognized that their daughters were acting with the moral values they had learned at home.
Despite varying degrees of alienation and/or identification with Judaism, Jewish backgrounds, traditions, politics, and values did shape the worldviews and commitments of Jewish women civil rights activists. Some but not all were children of Old Left families, whose activism was in keeping with family values. Others came from liberal Democratic families who retained a sense of tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repair of the world”), which suggests a special Jewish concern with social justice.
Women such as Vivian Leburg Rothstein (b. 1946), the child of refugees from Nazism, and Trudy Orris, then an Army wife who had visited the newly liberated concentration camps in Germany in 1946, directly tie their antiracist activism to close encounters with the Holocaust.
Other facets of mid-century American Jewish life fostered identification of Jews with the black struggle. One dimension is the closeness of many of Jewish women activists’ families to poverty and struggle. Carol Ruth Silver and Barbara Jacobs Haber (b. 1938) both had fathers who had earned law degrees but were forced to work at odd jobs to support their families. Several women came from divorced, woman-headed households, which only highlighted their “otherness” in the 1950s.
Sometimes a sense of “otherness” came with feeling marginalized as Jews. Some future civil rights workers experienced blatant antisemitism, often for the first time when they went away to college. In the 1950s, Florence Howe was the only Jewish graduate student at Smith College; there was one black student as well. Howe remembers overhearing the leaders of her dorm planning a party. “Do we have to invite the Jew and the colored?” they asked.
Many future Jewish women activists experienced a contradiction between the Jewish familial expectation of attaining higher education and the 1950s cultural norm in which women were supposed to stay home and raise families. Furthermore, Jewish women have traditionally been expected to work and to take care of family businesses, albeit to facilitate men’s Talmud study and spiritual development. This meshed nicely with the need for Jewish women (as northern white women) to play significant but heretofore invisible roles in the black-led civil rights movement.
In reflecting on the Holocaust, a number of future Jewish women activists saw the movement as an opportunity to fight back. It offered a chance to take risks, to expand their possibilities as women, and to fight economic oppression and racism. Given Jewish ethical imperatives, going to the South gave Jewish women a powerful context in which to act upon their own moral visions.
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How to cite this page
Schultz, Debra L.. "Civil Rights Movement in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 30, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/civil-rights-movement-in-united-states>.