Menu JTA Search

Focus on Issues: Retracing ‘freedom Summer’ Steps; Organizers Hope to Renew Old Bonds

To the outside world, they seemed an unlikely trio: a black Catholic from Mississippi and two Jews from New York.

But their fates were drawn together in the summer of 1964 by a common commitment to the struggle for equality and social justice.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were among hundreds of students who volunteered to work on the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, aiding voter-registration campaigns and desegregation efforts.

They disappeared on June 21 after traveling to Neshoba County, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a black church. Their disappearance prompted national search and a wave of outrage that helped secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam, shot and savagely beaten by the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Thirty-five years after their deaths, civil rights activists are seeking to honor their memories and celebrate the progress that has been made in the struggle for social justice by re-enacting the freedom rides of the early 1960s.

By focusing on the sacrifice blacks and Jews made together to advance the cause of freedom, activists are also hoping to recapture a bit of the spirit of “Freedom Summer” and rebuild the historically strong ties between the two communities.

The commemoration, slated to begin next week, is being organized by the Chaney Goodman Schwerner Unity Coalition, which includes an array of civil rights groups, religious leaders, academics and lawmakers.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Julian Bond, chairman of the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are serving as co-chairs of the coalition.

In addition to the commemoration, organizers have set a legislative agenda to address issues such as police brutality, sentencing disparity, voter participation, health care, affirmative action, hate crime prevention and the disproportionate use of the death penalty against African Americans.

Saperstein said the event is not only intended to remind America of what he called a “moment of extraordinary moral achievement,” but to inspire young people to work for social justice and to remind people of the special relationship between the black and Jewish communities.

“We share the bitter history of being the two quintessential victims of Western civilization, the two classic outsiders,” said Saperstein, a longtime member of the NAACP’s board.

“But over and above that, we share a common set of values and vision about what this country can be that has linked us together at the forefront of so many battles for social justice.”

Jay Greenfield, a retired Jewish attorney from New York, was at the forefront of that battle during Freedom Summer.

He sees this month’s freedom ride re-enactment as commemorating not only a significant event in American history, but a significant event in American Jewish history in light of the heavy Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.

Greenfield, now 66, was a young civil rights lawyer who volunteered to work in Louisiana following the disappearance of the workers in 1964. That summer, seeking to integrate a rural Louisiana restaurant, he obtained the first civil injunction in a private case under the Civil Rights Act.

He said he sees the fight for freedom “as a logical extension of the Exodus,” adding, “I don’t think Jewish Americans have ever fully appreciated the extent to which that is so.”

To be sure, bridging the divide that has separated the black and Jewish communities stands as no small task.

Since the peak of the civil rights movement, blacks and Jews have collided about as often as they have cooperated on issues from affirmative action to race-based districting.

Recent years have seen tensions flare between the two communities, most notably during the 1991 riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., when local African Americans unleashed a wave of violence against Jews after a car accident killed a young African American boy.

Black support for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti- Semitic slurs, has also been a source of tension.

While most observers see this month’s commemoration as a useful reminder of a time when blacks and Jews worked together to change America, some question whether it will ultimately be anything more than an exercise in nostalgia.

Murray Friedman, the Middle Atlantic states director of the American Jewish Committee and author of “What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance,” said that anything that brings blacks and Jews together in conversation serves as a positive force.

But he said organizers appeared to be advancing the “old agenda” and that if blacks and Jews are to come together again, it has be along “lines of newer thought” that address problems with the education system and issues such as the role of faith-based groups in providing social services.

“Freedom Ride 1999,” as it has been dubbed, will begin in New York City with an ecumenical service on June 15 and a send-off ceremony hosted by the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust on June 16.

It will include stops at predominantly black universities and sites such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C., made sure the trip also included a stop in his city, where the sit-in movement was launched in 1960 when black college students insisted on service at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Guttman, who has been working to forge closer ties between blacks and Jews in Greensboro, said hosting the freedom riders could help to bring the communities together.

“There’s a lot to be said for the coalition that existed between African Americans and Jews in the ’60s, and there’s a lot of mistrust and lack of understanding between our communities at the current time,” he said.

The caravan will gather riders along the way, many of them black and Jewish college students.

Four or five busloads carrying more than 200 people are expected to arrive at Chaney’s gravesite in Philadelphia, Miss., on June 21 — 35 years to the day after he and his two companions were murdered.

Along the way, the activists are planning to discuss legislative proposals crafted by the organizing coalition aimed at turning the symbolic journey into a call for concrete action.

A contingent is slated to head to Washington at the conclusion to lobby on the coalition’s legislative agenda.

Ben Chaney, the brother of the late James Chaney and the head of the coalition, said galvanizing young people to continue working at the grass-roots level to promote civil rights and black-Jewish understanding remains an overriding goal.

While there may still be strong ties between black and Jewish leaders, “on the basic grass-roots level, young people are overwhelmed with stereotypes about each group,” Chaney said, adding, “I think this is an opportunity to create a dialogue for young people on a one-on-one basis.”

Saperstein, for his part, hopes the event serves to remind blacks and Jews of one their proudest joint achievements that, while not forgotten, has receded in memory.

“In every generation, as we say at the Passover seder, we need to retell the story and to some extent that is what this freedom ride is doing,” he said.

NEXT STORY