Cover image for Going South : Jewish women in the civil rights movement
Going South : Jewish women in the civil rights movement
Schultz, Debra L.
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Publication Information:
New York : New York University Press, [2001]

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xix, 229 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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E185.61 .S364 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Many people today know that the 1964 murder in Mississippi of two Jewish men--Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman--and their Black colleague, James Chaney, marked one of the most wrenching episodes of the civil rights movement. Yet very few realize that Andrew Goodman had been in Mississippi for one day when he was killed; Rita Schwerner, Mickey's wife, had been organizing in Mississippi for six difficult months.

Organized around a rich blend of oral histories, Going South followsa group of Jewish women--come of age in the shadow of the Holocaust and deeply committed to social justice--who put their bodies and lives on the line to fight racism. Actively rejecting the post-war idyll of suburban, Jewish, middle-class life, these women were deeply influenced by Jewish notions of morality and social justice. Many thus perceived the call of the movement as positively irresistible.

Representing a link between the sensibilities of the early civil rights era and contemporary efforts to move beyond the limits of identity politics, the book provides a resource for all who are interested in anti-racism, the civil rights movement, social justice, Jewish activism and radical women's traditions.

Author Notes

Debra L. Schultz, a feminist historian, is Director of Programs of The Open Society Institute (Soros Foundations Network) Women's Program, which works to include women in the development of more democratic societies. She has taught courses on the History of Black-Jewish Relations and on Multicultural Women's History at Rutgers University and the New School University

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

When Barbara Jacobs, a Brandeis student, returned to campus after working with black civil rights groups in the South in 1960, she found a limerick in her university mailbox that expressed a common prejudice faced by Jewish women activists, which read in part, "She said, I'm not a whore/ I just do it for CORE/ and color's the same without lights." Blending together 15 oral histories and archival research, Schultz shows how Northern Jewish women's commitment to social justice informed in part by living in the shadow of the Holocaust played out in a time of enormous political, social and personal upheaval. There are many, sometimes painful, ironies here: often Northern women discovered that their Southern Jewish relatives, already feeling vulnerable as outsiders, wanted nothing to do with them or the movement; some faced anti-Semitism (both passive and virulent) in Southern black church groups. But Schultz never resorts to easy answers, always trying to find a historical truth that's balanced between fact and empathy. Sharply observant of her informants' lives, Schultz opens a new window not only into the civil rights movement but also into the sociology of mid-century Jewish-American culture. Her analysis is most impressive at the book's end, when she perceptively describes the protean nature of Jewish identities in the U.S. Such insightful cultural readings and criticism make this a fine contribution to both the literature of the civil rights movement and the field of Jewish studies. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Going South, 1960-1963 Part of the reason I went south so early was because I was romantic. But maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe more people should be romantic. --Dorothy Miller Zellner WITNESSING THE FOUNDING OF THE STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC) The Greensboro sit-ins signaled a sea change in the civil rights movement, one that veteran Black activist Ella Baker had been preparing for since her civil rights activism began in the 1930s. Immediately recognizing the radical potential of the student-led sit-ins, Baker called a meeting of those who had participated in them. Held at Shaw University in North Carolina, April 15-17, 1960, this became the founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The practical and philosophical contribution of Ella Baker to SNCC, the southern civil rights movement, and the entire student movement cannot be overestimated. Baker asserted that what the movement needed was "the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people."     Baker nurtured this potential in the Black southern student movement. SNCC was created as a coordinating body to bring together and maximize the effectiveness of the local student movements. Baker, then fifty-six years old and increasingly frustrated with the hierarchical style of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which she had helped develop, challenged the students to consider the strategic question "[w]here do we go from here?"     Among white observers from such groups as CORE, the YWCA, the National Student Association, and nineteen northern colleges, Barbara Jacobs Haber was privileged to witness the birth of SNCC. She found the convention "an absolutely mind-blowing experience, being surrounded by people my own age, including Black students, and talking, talking, talking, and singing, singing, singing." More than two hundred student delegates, representing more than fifty colleges and high schools in thirteen states, attended SNCC's founding conference. Through Baker's intervention, SNCC managed to stay separate from more established civil rights groups like SCLC, CORE, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rather than enabling the students to evolve their own styles and strategies, the larger groups simply wanted to harness students' energies toward the groups' own goals. Characteristically staying out of the limelight, Baker nevertheless imbued the students with her own ideals of grassroots participatory democracy and group-centered leadership.     During the SNCC convention, Jacobs experienced the culture that would come to characterize the southern movement and SNCC in particular. Staying in local Black homes where "people treated us so wonderfully," she understood in a new way "the courage of the elders and the students and the whole enterprise. I just wanted to be a part of it."     Returning to school, Jacobs was fired up to organize with CORE and among the predominantly Jewish students at Brandeis. One day she found a little ditty in her university mailbox: There once was a coed in tights who went in for big racial fights. She said, I'm not a whore, I just do it for CORE, and color's the same without lights. The ditty underscores a projection that Jewish women civil rights activists would have to face throughout their movement tenure, especially in the South: that they were promiscuous, seeking, in particular, interracial sex.     Vowing to return south, Dottie Miller came home from the thrill of the 1960 New Orleans sit-ins to "a series of awfully boring, horrible jobs during that winter-spring." A job offer at the New York Department of Welfare seemed a godsend because her weekly salary of $85 would allow Miller to get her own apartment. "This was big time," she recalls, until she got a call from her former professor James Moss. The Southern Regional Council in Atlanta had just hired Moss and he offered Miller a research job. In June 1961, "they hired me over the telephone" and she went to Atlanta immediately. SRC was one of several movement "halfway houses" that channeled young people into more direct involvement with the southern civil rights movement.     From June until September, Miller worked at the SRC and "tried to work up the nerve to contact SNCC." Even though that was her main motive for going to Atlanta, she "was too awestruck to go over there." Meeting Atlanta activist Julian Bond's sister Jane at SRC gave her an excuse to show up at the SNCC office.     There she encountered the legendary "Miss Baker," as everyone respectfully called her. Baker had provided office space for SNCC in a corner of SCLC's office. Jane Stembridge, a white student from Virginia, became SNCC's first secretary. SNCC historian Clayborne Carson credits Baker and Stembridge with keeping the organization afloat during its first summer of 1960.     In the fall of 1961, James Forman had recently become SNCC's executive secretary. Forman, a Chicago schoolteacher who had already participated in local antiracist activism in the South, had to be pressed into taking the job. The one-room office was tiny, chaotic, and filthy. Forman recalled, "We opened the office at 8:30 a.m. and closed any time after midnight. At first, only Norma [Collins] and I were working there full-time. Occasionally field people would come in and Charles Jones would be there and sometimes then Dorothy Miller ... and Julian Bond started coming in from time to time to help."     From September to the end of 1961, Miller volunteered for SNCC at night, while working at SRC during the day. Fired by the SRC in early 1962, Miller believes it was because "the FBI came around [mentioning her leftist background]. And of course the SRC claimed it had nothing to do with that, but it did." Thus, Miller, like Jacobs (who had experienced red-baiting in CORE), had to cope with the consequences of her radicalism. The ever-present threat of red-baiting could keep them from doing the work they passionately believed in.     Fortunately for Miller, Forman had been biding his time, offering her (miserably paid) full-time work with SNCC after she left SRC. He had recognized her potential contributions immediately. According to Miller, "Forman was an organizational genius. He could find out in five minutes what you knew how to do, and in his mind he had a place for you to be.... He asked me the fateful question, which I teased him about many years later: `Can you type?'" Like many young Jewish women of her generation admonished by parents to acquire a "marketable skill," Miller could type well. Forman put her to work typing affidavits from field secretaries returning from the front lines. "That was traumatic," she recalls, but she also reveled in the importance of chronicling the early voter registration efforts of the small SNCC field staff.     "These unbelievable people were sitting next to me saying, `I took Mrs. Smith to the courthouse in Liberty, Mississippi [to register to vote]' and I'm sitting there typing the whole thing up!" Such work documented the scope of illegal attempts to deny African Americans the right to vote and helped legitimize SNCC's organizing efforts.     Miller, who soon felt comfortable enough to assert herself, told Forman, "`Not only can I type, I can write too.'" She recalls that instead of patronizing her by saying, "`Oh thank you, little girl,'" Forman immediately asked her to work with Julian Bond on SNCC's newspaper, The Student Voice . Working together in a small room ("[w]e had a desk right on top of each other"), she and Bond began a lifelong friendship. Across differences of race, religion, and gender, they created an enormously useful medium for communicating SNCC's needs, philosophy, and achievements. Bond, in fact, paid a poetic tribute to Dottie Miller Zellner's contributions for her sixtieth birthday in 1998: Our story begins in Atlanta, G A, Where she first worked for S R C. But the SNCCers soon beckoned And Dottie soon reckoned, where the action was, she'd soon be. Without my being sexist, she whizzed as a typist, But as writer soon she made her mark. Composing, designing, refining, defining, To SNCC she made journalists hark. She gave us a presence, she broke through a blackout, that hid what we did from the world. She courted reporters, she told them the news, And the SNCC story slowly unfurled.     The Student Voice is one of the primary information sources on SNCC. In the early 1960s, it built community and morale among the movement's widely dispersed field workers and supporters. As SNCC activist Faith Holsaert writes, " The Student Voice strengthened my identity as part of the Movement. I often knew about events before I read the Voice , but it gave me details and texture, knowledge which I shared with all SNCCs."     At the time of its emergence, The Student Voice was one of the few publications reporting on the level of daily violence committed against southern Blacks, as well as movement workers. Forman recalls, "In the early days, our critical weakness was in the area of communications.... The mass media of the country printed very little news at that time of what was happening to Black people." Miller helped bring the reality of southern violence to national attention.     Miller also began working on public relations outreach, an important task at that point in SNCC's development. She spent long hours putting out press releases, newsletters, and urgent telegrams to the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking protection for SNCC field workers. When she and Bond were in the office together, they would share this work: We'd get a call that "so and so has been arrested." What happened? We would divide up and I would call some people and he would call other people. We'd write the press release, we'd crank it out, do the mimeographing. We would get the Atlanta press on the phone, and I used to call the radio stations and [arrange] hookups. Even then they could tape you on the telephone or do a live [report] on the phone.     Miller's public relations, publicity, and political appeals, like those of many other Jewish women who wrote about the movement and did fund-raising, played a significant though barely recognized role in shaping public perceptions of the movement. With such effective representations of movement work, designed to elicit legal, moral, and financial support, SNCC was able to rise to national prominence quickly.     Miller adapted her skills and drive to this kind of behind-the-scenes role, typical of Jewish women in the movement. She was able to get along well with the early staff under trying conditions in SNCC's one-room quarters because "I had no illusions from the outset that I somehow was a leader of the organization, that I was in charge. I knew perfectly well who was in charge, and I was very honored and happy to be allowed to be there."     Ella Baker's quietly supportive modus operandi and her philosophy of group-centered leadership provided a political rationale that helped Jewish women accept such roles. SNCC's ethic of putting the community before the individual enabled them to create a place for themselves in the most groundbreaking organization of their time.     GETTING ON THE BUS FOR THE FREEDOM RIDES Performing critical out-of-the-limelight tasks, such as typing affidavits and doing public relations, did not preclude Jewish women from engaging in direct nonviolent confrontational actions, such as the ongoing sit-ins. They also put their bodies on the line in the movement's next and even more confrontational campaign: the Freedom Rides. On May 4, 1961, the first group of thirteen Freedom Riders (three white females, three white males, seven Black male CORE members) left Washington, D.C., for New Orleans in two buses to test a 1960 Supreme Court ruling that banned segregated terminal facilities in intrastate travel? They were met by hostile white crowds in the Deep South.     In Anniston, Alabama, Klan members stopped one of the buses, threw a bomb inside, and attacked the escaping riders as the bus burst into flames. The bus burned to the ground as state troopers took the injured riders to a local hospital. In Birmingham, a white mob met the second bus, attacking and seriously injuring several of the Freedom Riders. When CORE announced it was calling off the rides, Black student leader Diane Nash and a group of SNCC-affiliated students in Nashville, Tennessee, decided to continue them. The designated "riders" endured more violence until the Kennedy administration reluctantly intervened, to prevent further violence and direct confrontation between the federal government and racist southern officials.     Determined to draw national attention to their protest, the riders on the first two buses who were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, did not pay fines or post bond but stayed in jail for thirty-nine days, the maximum time they could serve and still appeal their convictions for "breach of peace." To maximize the impact of its campaign, CORE decided to fill the jails and so put out a national call for Freedom Riders. By the end of the summer of 1961, 328 had been arrested in Jackson; two-thirds were college students. Three-fourths of the 328 Freedom Riders were men; half were Black. Among the Black women were leaders like Ruby Doris Smith of Atlanta. Among the white women who revered them were a number of Jewish women, including recent University of Chicago graduate Carol Ruth Silver.     On June 4, 1961, three weeks after the first Freedom Rides, Silver went south for the first time, stopping in Richmond, Virginia. Before meeting her team of Freedom Riders, she stayed overnight with Sue Harmann, one of two white women on the third Freedom Ride from Birmingham to Montgomery. She told Silver about the white mob that ambushed and attacked everyone on the bus, regardless of race, age, or gender. Undeterred, Silver moved on to meet her fellow Freedom Riders in Nashville. She went with the knowledge that her presence as a white woman--and the only woman--riding with a biracial team of male students was certain to inflame the white racists waiting in Jackson.     On June 6, Silver waited in the Nashville SNCC office to meet her fellow Freedom Riders--three Black male college students from Virginia University and two white male divinity students from Yale University. She listened there to the "war stories" of the Fisk University students who had participated in some of the first sit-ins and Freedom Rides.     Silver and her five male colleagues left the Trailways bus station at 1:15 A.M. in the presence of a lone United Press International reporter. They stopped for breakfast in Memphis, but Silver sat by herself because they did not want any trouble before arriving in Jackson. In her "Diary of a Freedom Rider," she writes, "We were afraid that if there was anything liable to [create an incident], it was a white girl sitting with Negro men. Southerners are so chivalrous!"     They reached Jackson at 1:10 P.M. Uniformed police and a few reporters and bus drivers were waiting in the station. The group allowed all the other passengers to disembark first, shook hands with one another, and then moved on toward their destinations--the Blacks to the waiting room marked "White intrastate," and the whites to the "Colored intrastate." A reporter said to Silver, "We were told there was a white woman in the group, but that she probably wouldn't go through with it." Silver pushed past him contemptuously.     Inside, their "reception committee was more police, all of them white, all armed, all looking terribly serious." Then, in an elaborately choreographed scene, the police asked the young people if they would move on. Refusing, they were arrested and taken to jail. When a reporter asked the policemen how many Freedom Riders there were, one answered, "There's three Black niggers and three white niggers." Silver had stepped over the line deemed appropriate for women by southern white "chivalry." For that moment, at least, her gender and race mattered less than her politics. By virtue of her action, she was identified as a "nigger."     SURVIVING IN JAIL Arriving at the prison, Silver shook hands with her male comrades, who were taken to segregated men's cells. She was photographed and fingerprinted, deprived of her personal possessions, and locked in a cell labeled "adult white female." In Mississippi's segregated prison system, her race and gender once again did matter.     Silver soon met with Jack Young, one of Mississippi's premier Black civil rights lawyers. Then she made her one permitted telephone call, collect to her mother. She recalls, "Up to this point she had been with me all the way, but when this call came through, her anxiety got the better of her. I talked and she cried about ten dollars' worth. Then I was conducted back to my cell."     For the first two days, Silver shared a cell with a southern white woman there for rowdy drinking. On June 8, 1961, however, four new young women (whom she refers to as "girls" in her diary) were thrown into the cell. They also were Freedom Riders: Helene Wilson, 26, from Washington, D.C.; Teri Perlman, 19, from New York City; Joan Trumpauer, 19, from Macon, Georgia; and Jane Rossett, 18, from Durham, North Carolina. The six women shared a cell measuring 13 by 15 feet, including a 4-by-6-feet shower. During the day, detectives questioned the women, asking Silver if she had ever dated Negro boys and if she would be willing to marry one. She defiantly told them yes, that she had been engaged to a Negro boy once--a lie. They inquired into her religious beliefs and were intrigued with her self-definition as agnostic, a term new to them.     After what Silver describes as a four-minute hearing, the five women were convicted of breach of peace and sentenced to four months in jail, two suspended, and a $200 fine. They were moved across the street to the Hinds County Jail, to a cell even smaller than the cell they had occupied in the Jackson City Jail. They shared that cell with two white women arrested for drinking and another Freedom Rider, Betsy Wychoff. Wychoff, forty-six, a former Mount Holyoke College professor, had been the only white woman Freedom Rider in jail prior to Silver's arrest.     On the afternoon of June 9, jailers threw in two more mattresses and two more Freedom Riders, Del Greenblatt, a Cornell University student in medieval history, and Winona Beamer, from Dayton, Ohio. One week later, there were fourteen white women Freedom Riders sharing the cell. The newcomers included Lee Berman, 18; Claire O'Connor, a 27-year-old nurse; Kathy Pleune, 21; Jo Adler, from the University of Wisconsin; Kay Kittle, from Oklahoma; and Elizabeth Slade Hirschfeld, from Cornell University. Silver's diary points out that more than half the women in the cell were Jewish.     On June 13, the three cells of women (one for whites; two for Blacks) discussed going on a hunger strike to protest the stated intention of sending the male Freedom Riders to Parchman Prison (the state penitentiary), where, it was rumored, they would be put to picking cotton. When the women learned on June 14 that the young men were taken to Parchman, they decided "to go on a hunger strike until either the boys come back or we are sent there." They elected Pauline Knight (a Black woman) to speak for the hunger strikers in all three cells. Long before the advent of widespread feminist consciousness, these women were united in their belief that they should not be treated differently than the male activists.     One of the immediate effects of the hunger strike was that Winona Beamer passed out and was unconscious for a short while. After the young women complained and screamed, the jailer called a doctor, who gave her a respiratory stimulant. In her diary, Silver notes, "After a while she was okay. Still weak, but able to sit up and make [self-deprecating] comments about zaftig [Yiddish for "plump, buxom, well-rounded"] girls who faint when they don't eat for a day."     NEGOTIATING CULTURAL CLASHES The brief hunger strike also caused conflict between Pauline Knight and some of the white Jewish women. After hearing lawyer Jack Young's advice that hunger strikes would do no good, Knight decided that the strike should be called off and announced that to the other two cells. Ruby Doris Smith's cell decided almost immediately to follow suit, but the white women's cell had a long and "upsetting meeting" to discuss whether or not they too would do so.     Most of the white women resented Pauline Knight for not consulting with the other groups before telling the jailers about the strike and then for deciding to end the strike. Silver notes in her diary: We had all felt very strongly that the spokeman for the strike and the leadership from it should come from one of the Negro girls rather than from one of us in this cell, but we also felt that as individuals equally with them involved in a democratic movement, we had at least the right to be treated equally. (Continues...) Excerpted from GOING SOUTH by DEBRA L. SCHULTZ. Copyright © 2001 by New York University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Blanche Wiesen Cook
Forewordp. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prefacep. xiii
Introduction: Making the Decisionp. 1
I Taking the Action
1 Going South, 1960-1963p. 31
2 Moving In On Mississippi, 1963-1965p. 57
3 Crossing Boundaries: Jewishness in the South, 1960-1967p. 91
II Seeking the Legacy
4 Uncovering Family Legaciesp. 129
5 Exploring Many Ways of Being Jewishp. 162
6 Creating a Living Legacy: Passing It Onp. 193
Bibliographyp. 207
Indexp. 223
About the Authorp. 229