Rabbi Reuven Travis

Reuven is a religious studies and American history teacher at a Modern Orthodox high school. His lesson plan uses primary sources as the basis for exploring Jewish experiences from two important tactics of the Civil Rights Movement: The Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer.

Civil Disobedience and the Freedom Rides

Explore Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and consider how we can use this knowledge to combat ongoing institutionalized racism with civil disobedience.

Rabbi Reuven Travis, 2013 Twersky Award Finalist.


Enduring Understandings

  • Methods of protest and disobedience do not have to be violent.
  • The Civil Rights Movement helped people of color in the United States gain rights, but there is still institutionalized and casual racism around us every day that we can combat with methods of civil disobedience.

Essential Questions

  • How could the oppression of African-Americans in the South endure for so long?
  • Why was there such a high degree of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement?
  • What is Dr. Martin Luther King’s enduring legacy?

Materials Required

  • Three-ring binder/paper
  • Pencils or pens, highlighters

Notes to Teacher

  • This unit consists of two lesson plans (Parts 1 and 2 below). Teachers can choose to teach either one individually, or to teach both.
  • Some options for final assessments:
    • Written reflection on Brown v. Board of Education in which students describe their current reaction vs. what it would have been had they been there
    • Written reflection in which students describe ideals in their world they feel are so important that they would make the kinds of sacrifices Judith Frieze and other Freedom Riders made
    • Written reflection on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and how it continues to impact our lives to this day
Lesson plan

Part 1

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  • Assignment. Before the lesson, have students read “Civil Disobedience and the Freedom Rides: Introductory Essay” and “Gandhi’s Rules of Civil Disobedience”
  • Review some of the information from the introductory essay so that students will understand the context for Frieze's stories.
  • Use video resource to further clarify the strategy of nonviolence.
  • Distribute copies of the Judith Frieze Document Study to students. Ask students to read the introductory paragraph about Judith Frieze and the Freedom Rides.
  • Working in small groups, students should read the excerpts from The Boston Globe out loud, being sure to address the discussion questions.
    • Each group should choose one of Frieze's statements that stands out to them as being the most significant part of her experience.
  • Students come back together as a class and share the statements they chose.

Assignment. Students should read the Freedom Summer Introductory Essay as homework.

Part 2

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  • Explain. Because Freedom Summer volunteers were predominantly young students, the project sparked some generational tensions. Many of the volunteers' parents, even if they supported the civil rights movement in general, were concerned about the violence that their children faced and discouraged them from participating. Some parents disagreed with the radical tactics of the project, believing that more traditional routes to change—legislative, judicial, etc.—should remain the focus of the Civil Rights Movement. Others were inspired by their children's commitment to civil rights and even learned from them. The letters volunteers wrote home testify to the varied responses that they faced from family.
  • Distribute copies of Voices of the Freedom Summer Document Study
    • A different student should read each letter out loud. As the students read the letters, instructor should remind students who wrote these letters and when (young people during Freedom Summer, in 1964), and for what audience (generally loved ones).
  • Ask students to find a partner and choose a letter that they find interesting.
    • Assignment.  Students are to take on the role of the person the letter was written to. In that role, they should write a response to the letter writer. Then they should take on the role of the letter writer and respond to their new letter.
    • Students may share their original letter and their two responses, time-permitting.
  • Instructor may create a bulletin board of the letters on which the instructor can write positive feedback and questions on post-it notes. In addition, students will be encouraged to write their positive comments and questions as well (optional).
  • Assignment. Students should read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as homework.
Document studies

Civil Disobedience: Freedom Rides

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Civil Disobedience and the Freedom Rides: Introductory Essay

by Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive

One of the ways African American communities fought legal segregation was through direct action protests, such as boycotts, sit-ins, and mass civil disobedience. The tactic of non-violence civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement was deeply influenced by the model of Mohandas Gandhi, an Indian lawyer who became a spiritual leader and led a successful nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial power in India. Gandhi's approach of non-violent civil disobedience involved provoking authorities by breaking the law peacefully, to force those in power to acknowledge existing injustice and bring it to an end. For its followers, this strategy involved a willingness to suffer and sacrifice oneself.

In 1960, black college students used non-violent civil disobedience to fight against segregation in restaurants and other public places. On February 1, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the whites-only lunch counter in Woolworth's and politely ordered some food. As expected, they were refused service, but they remained sitting at the counter until the store closed. The next day, they were joined by more than two dozen supporters. On day three, 63 of the 66 lunch counter seats were filled by students. By the end of the week, hundreds of black students and a few white supporters filled the lunch counters at Woolworth's and another store down the street.

The sit-ins attracted national attention, and city officials tried to end the confrontation by negotiating an end to the protests. But white community leaders were unwilling to change the segregation laws, so in April, students began the sit-ins again. After the mass arrest of student protestors on the charge of trespassing, the African American community organized a boycott of targeted stores. When the merchants felt the economic impact of the boycott, they relented, and on July 25, 1960, African Americans were served their first meal at Woolworth's.

The success of the Greensboro sit-ins led to a wave of similar protests across the South. More than 70,000 people – mostly black students, joined by some white allies – participated in sit-ins over the next year and a half, with more than 3,000 arrested for their actions.

Like the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides of 1961 were designed to provoke arrests, though in this case to prompt the Justice Department to enforce already existing laws banning segregation in interstate travel and terminal accommodations. These were not the first Freedom Rides. In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization devoted to interracial, nonviolent direct action led by the African American pacifist Bayard Rustin, co-sponsored a bus ride through the South with the Christian pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, to test compliance with 1946 Morgan v. Virginia decision that prohibited segregation on interstate buses. Those first Freedom Riders were arrested in North Carolina when they refused to leave the bus. In 1961, James Farmer – one of CORE's founders and its national director – decided to hold another interracial Freedom Ride, with support from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (founded in 1957 by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, founded in 1909).

The Freedom Ride began in Washington DC in May, with two interracial groups traveling on public buses headed toward Alabama and Mississippi. (John Lewis, who appears in Unit 2 lesson 7 and Unit 3 lesson 5, was among those on the first buses of Freedom Riders.) They faced only isolated harassment until they reached Anniston, Alabama, where an angry mob attacked one bus, breaking windows, slashing its tires, and throwing a firebomb through the window. The mob violently beat the Freedom Riders with iron bars and clubs while the bus burned. The second bus was also brutally attacked in Anniston. Violence followed both buses to Birmingham, where a mob beat the Freedom Riders while the police and the FBI watched and did nothing. No bus would take the remaining Freedom Riders on to Montgomery, so they flew to New Orleans on a special flight arranged by the Justice Department.

The CORE-sponsored Freedom Ride disbanded, but SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, founded in 1960) took up the project, gathering new volunteers to continue the rides. A new group of Freedom Riders, students from Nashville led by Diane Nash -- a young African American woman -- gathered in Birmingham and departed for Montgomery on May 20. The Montgomery bus station, which initially seemed deserted, filled with a huge mob when the passengers got off the bus. Several Freedom Riders were severely injured, as were journalists and observers. The mob violence and indifference of the Alabama police attracted negative international press for the Kennedy Administration. In response, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 400 U.S. marshals to prevent further mob violence, and called for a cooling off period, but civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, James Farmer and SNCC leaders insisted that the Freedom Rides would continue. So Robert Kennedy brokered a compromise agreement: if the Freedom Riders were allowed to pass safely through Mississippi, the federal government would not interfere with their arrest in Jackson.

At this point, the Freedom Riders developed a new strategy: fill the jails. They called on civil rights activists to join them on the Freedom Rides, and buses from all over the country headed South carrying activists committed to challenging segregation. Over the course of the summer, more than 300 Freedom Riders were arrested in Jackson, where they refused bail and instead filled the jails, often facing beatings, harassment, and deplorable conditions. More than half of the white Freedom Riders were Jewish.

Judith Frieze, a recent graduate of Smith College, was among those white northerners and many Jews who joined the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961. Arrested in Jackson, she spent six weeks in a maximum security prison. Upon her release, she documented her experience in an 8-part series of articles published in the Boston Globe.

Eventually, the Freedom Rides succeeded in their mission: by the end of 1962, the Justice Department pressed the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue clear rules prohibiting segregation in interstate travel. The experience revealed the hesitancy of the federal government to enforce the law of the land and the intransigence of white resistance to desegregation. But it also strengthened SNCC, whose leadership at a crucial moment of the Freedom Rides led to the project's success and taught these young civil rights activists about the central role of politics, and the importance of appealing to the pragmatism of politicians -- even the President -- in the fight for civil rights.

Gandhi's Rules of Civil Disobedience

  1. Harbor no anger, but suffer the anger of the opponent.
  2. Do not submit to any order given in anger, even though severe punishment is threatened for disobeying.
  3. Refrain from insults and swearing.
  4. Protect opponents from insult or attack, even at the risk of life.
  5. Do not resist arrest nor the attachment of property, unless holding property as a trustee.
  6. Refuse to surrender any property held in trust at the risk of life.
  7. If taken prisoner, behave in an exemplary manner.
  8. As a member of the satyagraha (civil disobedience) unit, obey the orders of satyagraha leaders, and resign from the unit in the event of serious disagreement.

Gandhi’s Code of Discipline. www.uwosh.edu/faculty_staff/barnhill/ES_375/gandhi_rules.html. July 29, 2009

Document Study: Judith Frieze, Freedom Rider

  1. Tell your students:
    Today we're going to learn about a young woman, just a few years older than you, who took part in the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement by volunteering for a project called the Freedom Rides.
  2. Distribute copies of the Document Study to your students. Have a student read the introductory paragraph about Judith Frieze and the Freedom Rides. You may also want to review some of the information from the introductory essay with your students, so that they understand the context for Frieze's stories. Be sure to define any terms your students may not be familiar with.
  3. Break your class into small groups and have them read the excerpts from The Boston Globe on Document Study #1 out loud. Each group should choose one of Frieze's statements that stands out to them as being the most significant part of her experience.
  4. Have your students come back together as a class and share the statements they chose.
  5. Using the questions on the Document Study, discuss The Boston Globe articles with your students.
  6. While you're discussing the articles, you may want to project the "mug shot" taken of Judith Frieze when she was arrested during the Freedom Ride, which appears at the beginning of this lesson.
  7. Let your students know that Judith Frieze – now Judith Frieze Wright – told JWA in a 2010 conversation about the Boston Globe articles that she was not happy with the articles when they came out – she felt they were too "fluffy," highlighting details like conditions in the prison rather than the important civil rights issues at stake. Frieze later returned South to work for a year as a civil rights activist.
  8. Optional: Play the video clip of Judith Frieze Wright. Introduce the video by explaining: The Jewish Women's Archive (the creators of this lesson) invited Judith Frieze Wright to be interviewed at their 2010 Institute for Educators. We're going to watch a portion of that interview in which she reflects back on her experience as a Freedom Rider, from the perspective of 49 years later.
  9. After watching the video as a class, ask students to turn to the person next to them to talk about what they thought of Wright’s reflections, using the provided discussion questions as a guide.

Video Resource

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American Experience: Freedom Riders: The Strategy

Voices of Freedom Summer Document Study

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Letter to Mom and Dad from Bonnie

June 27

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…

Love, Bonnie

Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), 22.

Letter to Dad from Sylvie

June 24

Dear Dad,
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…

Love, Sylvie

Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965.)

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.

Elizabeth Martínez, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 63-64.

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]

Elizabeth Martínez, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 172-173.

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.

Your daughter,

Elizabeth Martínez, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 269.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rabbi Reuven Travis." (Viewed on May 21, 2024) <http://jwa.org/twersky/reuven-travis>.