Monthly Archives: December 2011

Being Jewish in Meridian – Part 1

One of my parents was Protestant, and one of my parents was Jewish.  Growing up, I learned much more about my Christian heritage than my Jewish.  I spent 11 childhood summers with my Hume grandparents, attending weekly hymn sings and Sunday services in a little New England church where my grandfather sometimes preached.  As a teenager, I attended chapel every single morning, both at summer camp and high school.  My Jewish education, in contrast, consisted pretty much of annual family observances of Hanukkah and Passover and the occasional Bar/Bat Mitzvah of a family friend.

Once in college, I no longer did any of these things.  I didn’t think much about religion one way or the other, and if someone had asked me to describe myself, I wouldn’t have included religion in the description.

Then, during the Freedom Summer training session in Oxford, OH, in June 1964, together with all the training I expected in nonviolence and how to teach freedom school,  I unexpectedly developed a heightened awareness of being Jewish   Most of the summer volunteers I met that week were Jewish — Jewish, not only in terms of ancestry, as I defined myself, but also Jewish as an important part of who they were any why they had volunteered to come to Mississippi.

As background, recall that most Freedom Summer volunteers were born during World War II (in 1964, we were nearly all ages 18 to 25). The summer of 1964 was a short 19 years after the Allied discovery and liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Terezin, and the others.  The War and the Holocaust had had a huge impact on the families of nearly all the Jewish volunteers and had shaped them in a variety of ways.

Some came from families immediately impacted by the Holocaust by losing relatives or having emigrated from Germany or Poland to escape Nazism.  For many, America did not yet feel like a secure place for Jews. The memories of the rise of Nazism in Europe were too close.  The Ku Klux Klan had bombed many synagogues in the South as well as black churches.  Some Jewish volunteers believed their status was closer to that of Negroes in the South than to the white Protestants who were in control of the South, and that the fight for civil rights would make the United States safer for Jews as well as blacks.

Others were motivated by the moral and ethical teachings of Judaism that emphasized the historic struggle for justice and saw parallels between the story of the Hebrews’ enslavement (and liberation) in Egypt and the Negro’s fight for freedom.

Still others were “red diaper babies,” children of left wing activists, often recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.  The parents of the “red diaper babies” had been on the front lines of the trade union movement and other radical social movements of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. For these volunteers, being on the front lines was carrying on a family tradition of social activism.

Whatever the combination of motivations, it turned out that at least half the white Freedom Summer volunteers  were Jewish.  In Meridian, the proportion was higher: Michael and Rita Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, of course.  Mark and Betty Levy, Luke Kabat, David Kotz, Pete Rabinowitz, Steve and Sue Shrader, Judy Wright. All my closest white friends were Jewish, and I started to be interested in reclaiming my Jewish heritage.

So, in light of my new pride that Jews were in the forefront of the Freedom Summer struggles, it surprised me to start hearing black Meridian residents refer to Jews in nasty words I had never before heard spoken aloud.

They weren’t talking about us.  I quickly realized that calling someone a “Jew” was a slur.  It meant money-grubbing, grasping, slick.  We weren’t thought of this way.  And so we weren’t considered Jews.  It was as simple as that.

Hearing black civil rights activists talk about Jews with ugly slurs took me aback and caused me to take a look around Meridian.  What I saw was a highly visible Jewish community occupying positions of major economic authority.  Jewish families owned a large proportion of the stores where black people (and white people) traded. If a black person bought clothing on credit or layaway, it was a Jewish man she owed money to. Jews were landlords, and that made them rent collectors. They had loan companies, and that made black people their debtors. Several of the older women who were stalwart civil rights activists worked or had worked as maids for Jewish families.

Who were these Southern Jews in Meridian? Were they like the educated, progressive Jews I knew in Pittsburgh and had met in the civil rights movement?  Or did they define themselves as white southerners who were as racist as their WASP neighbors?

I longed to cross the communication divide and talk, really talk,  with some Jewish residents of the city.  But no one from the Jewish community reached out to us all that year, even though surely they knew that many of us were Jewish.  I first learned how much fear existed when COFO workers Judy and Frank Wright went to visit Jewish woman who was  a friend of Judy’s family and who lived in Meridian.  Having no car, Frank and Judy had to go by taxi.  But the friend was terrified to have someone delivered directly from the COFO office to her house, so they had to take a taxi to a neutral location and go in another vehicle to the friend’s home.

Soon after, in December 1964, Luke Kabat and I attended services at Temple Beth Israel.  At the time, I wrote that the temple was in

“… an elegant new housing project…….. The temple was just opened two weeks ago at an enormous reception where all the “right” people in town put in an appearance and Senator (John) Stennis [extremely racist senator from Kemper County] gave the guest speech.  The new temple is beautiful, very modern and elegant and all the members are deservedly proud of it.

“It was a simple service; the rabbii gave a very intellectual sounding but contentless sermon about how actions must be a combination of ideals and practical action — citing Abraham Lincoln as an example, but as an example because he had an ideal of union (rather than an ideal of freedom).

“Luke and I wore Freedom pins so that people knew who were were.  After services most of the people came up and wished us “Good Shabbos.” The wife of the Rabbi said she didn’t know enough about what we were doing to have an opinion about it, but she wished us well.  Mrs. ____, Frank and Judy’s friend, inquired after her friends and seemed friendly yet very concerned lest anyone notice her friendliness. . . . With all there was a tacit recognition of who we were but a careful avoidance of anything which might lead into the subject of civil rights.

“…. We asked [the widow of the former rabbi] whether there was much antisemitism in Meridian.  She said no, none, or at least “as little as possible.” She said, “There are no barriers socially.” There seemed to be an implication that they would not let anyone jeopardize this position by involvement with civil rights.”

In a word, we were received courteously, but definitely coolly. Keep in mind that we had been attending black church services at least weekly, often more, for months, and had become accustomed to the invariably warm, effusive welcome we received at every single black congregation (and there were many!). At the black churches, we were always pressed to come back again.  No one at Temple Israel suggested that we come back.

(Note: In this post, I described my subjective experiences of being Jewish in Meridian.  In a follow-up post, I will describe what I later learned from others about the Jewish community in Meridian.)


The Arc of the Moral Universe (Meridian High School – Pt 2)

In church recently our minister Mara recalled Martin Luther King’s famous words, The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.  She reminded us that the source of this quote was an 1853 sermon by Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, and that the words express our basic faith as Unitarians.

As I listened to Mara that Sunday, I realized that, in returning to Mississippi, I needed to test that faith.  It’s been a tough decade for keeping faith in the arc. In fact I wonder how President Obama is feeling these days when he looks at   oval rug crop 360these very words, which are woven into his rug in the Oval Office.

This October, in Meridian, the question was always there for me: Are the lives of black and white (and, now, hispanic) people in Meridian better now than they were in 1964?  We were so sure then that “Freedom” was coming and that it would bring a better life for all.  How has it turned out?

The question, in all its complexity, was front and center this fall when I had the extraordinary opportunity of visiting Meridian High School with Mark Levy and Roscoe Jones.  The visit was made possible by Becky Glover, a whirlwind of passion and energy, who works  for Parents for Public Schools.

Meridian High School has been the city’s only public high school since all-black T.J. Harris closed by court order in 1970.  As we entered, it was immediately apparent that MHS, like Meridian, is now majority black.

For Those Who Are Interested in Statistics (If you aren’t, just skip below to Visiting 2011)

Between 1940 and 1960, Meridian’s population grew by 39 per cent. It was the second largest city in Mississippi. In 1964, about 49,000 people lived in Meridian.  Of these, 66% were white and 34% were non-white. Today, the city is smaller overall (41,148).  It has dropped to 6th largest city in Mississippi.

At the same time, there has been a dramatic reversal in the city’s racial balance.  Today Meridian is 35.7% white and 64 % non-white.

Meanwhile the population of surrounding Lauderdale County has grown steadily.  Demographic studies indicate that whites are not leaving the area, but rather are moving out of the city to the suburbs.

The racial balance at the public schools is more imbalanced than the overall population figures.  In Meridian’s public schools, 88% of the students are non-white; whereas, in the county schools, 30% of the students are non-white. In Meridian schools, 83% of all students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, compared with 51.4% of the county students. There are a number of private schools in Lauderdale County, and I assume that they account for the difference between the overall percentage of whites in the city population (35.7%) and the percentage of white public school students (12%).

Visiting 2011

We divided up to talk to individual classes.  Mark and Roscoe went to two AP history classes, which were about half black and half white.  I went to two classes that combined regular track and special ed students.  Both were 100% black.  If I hadn’t been told, I would not have recognized these as special ed students.  They were funny and quick-witted, curious and tuned-in as long as we were talking about their lives today. The teacher, Mrs. Hattye Jones, was enthusiastic and welcoming; she remembered her sister attending the Freedom School in 1964.

In each class we discussed what the students knew about Freedom Summer.  The answer was pretty much nothing, except that most were generally aware that some civil rights workers had been killed.  They didn’t remember hearing much of anything about the civil rights movement from their parents or grandparents, but most were clearly interested.  Their history curriculum includes Martin Luther King, but it doesn’t address the struggles for voting rights or desegregation of schools and public accommodations in their own hometown.

These students are rooted in the present, and, for them, the days of Jim Crow are ancient history. I told the students about my reaction when I saw saw a black teenager driving with a white girl in the passenger seat (See Arriving Again).  They all thought my reaction was really funny.  They seemed to think I was a visitor from another historical era (when I thought about it, I realized Freedom Summer was as far in the past for them as World War I was when I was in high school).

We talked about racial prejudice.  They have definitely experienced it: one girl described feeling unwelcome at a birthday party at the home of a white classmate; another told about harsh treatment by a bus driver.  But they didn’t seem to have any concept of the difference betwen personal prejudice and institutional racism.  The days of Jim Crow and segregation seemed  as far in the past to them as slavery.

Mrs. Jones asked her class how many of them had white friends.  Every single student raised his/her hand.  In the whole day, that was the most jaw-dropping moment for me.  Here they were funneled into low-track, all-black classes, yet every one of them has one or more white friends and doesn’t see anything unusual about that.  I doubt most northern students could say the same.

That doesn’t mean racism and its impacts don’t affect these students.  Just as most had no sense of history, most said they had no personal vision for the future. When asked about plans for college or what they might do aafter graduation, these students all scrunched over their desks, or just looked out of the window. They acknowledged they don’t study seriously in school, and most see no reason to do so.  They don’t see an economic future for themselves that studying would make possible.  They are coasting or sliding backwards. Meridian High School has a 19.7 per cent dropout rate, and the students in these classes are likely to be the ones who will be dropping out.

Back in 1964, Freedom Summer and the civil rights movement offered students stuck in segregation a new hope, a new vision, a reason to redefine themselves, a reason to believe they didn’t have to stay stuck in the same track all their lives.  A surprising number of Meridian Freedom School students changed personally along with the times: they grew up to become lawyers and teachers and artists and officers in the military.  They moved to California and New York and Atlanta, or left and came back to Mississippi and moved into positions of responsibility. Of course, the economy offered more opportunities then.  Affording an education was easier.

Still, I wonder. Could Roscoe Jones’ vision of rekindling the Freedom School spirit in today’s high school students make a difference to them? To be sure, their  discouragement and hopelessness accurately reflect their economic reality.  But the story of 1964 is about a movement that changed reality. Would knowing more about the history of change right here in Meridian make Mrs. Jones’ students feel they might change too?  Is that arc still bending toward justice?

Meridian High School

Meridian High School photo courtesy of Mark Levy

On our first full day visiting Meridian this October, Mark Levy and I accompanied Roscoe Jones to visit classes at Meridian High School.

One of the highlights of our visit was seeing the commemorative mural surrounding the entrance to the school library honoring the five young women who desegregated Meridian High School in 1965:    Sadie Clark, Sandra Falconer, Faye Inge, Patricia Stennis, and Larrece Hopkins.   I recognized their names and faces: all five young women had attended the Meridian Freedom School in the summer of 1964.

Elsewhere in Mississippi in 1965 and the years following there were hateful crowds blocking school  entrances to blacks students; there were court battles and demonstrations.  In Meridian, from the outside, desegregation appeared to proceed quietly.  The mural depicts the pioneers as serene, against a heaven-like backdrop. However, from the perspective of the black students who were on the front lines in those first couple of years, daily school life was constantly stressful.  In 1966, I  returned to Meridian with the Southern Courier, and wrote about the experiences of some of the pioneers at Meridian High School during the second year of desegregation.

Gwen Clark, was the younger sister of Sadie.  She along with several other black students, including some boys, came over to Meridian High School in September 1966.  I knew Gwen from the Freedom School; she described her experiences in the first week of class in 1966, this way:

On Thursday, I went to the library to work on an assignment.  When I began, one of the white boys wrote, “‘White Power — KKK’ on a piece of paper and put it on my table.  I let it sit on the table until I’d finished my lesson.  When I finished, I turned and laughed at him.  He got so mad, he began to call me “nigger’ and other things.

When the bell rang for us to change class, I picked up the piece of paper on the table and threw it on the floor and stomped on it. The boy said ‘You damn nigger’ and walked out. I left, leaving the paper on the floor. 

The same day I went to the cafeteria and the white kids were calling me and the other Negroes ‘nigger.’ So I got sick of it and turned around and told the white boy who was talking, ‘Shut up, nigger, you’ talking about yourself,’ because ‘nigger’ means anyone who is nasty.

After finishing my lunch, I was going into the main building when one of the white boys spat on me.  I spat back on him, and that evening I told the principal about it. 

The next day Randolph Hopkins, one of the Negro boys that goes out to the school, was in a fight with one of the white boys.  Randolph was sent home for three days, and the white boy, who started the fight, was sent home for five days.”

Rereading this today, I am struck by the difference in attitude between the Meridian students who had attended Freedom School and been part of Freedom Summer when compared by the passive victimization described by Elizabeth Eckford in Little Rock (see Blogppost Elizabeth and Hazel).

A few weeks later, the harassment continued, and the black students met on a Sunday afternoon with Roscoe Jones, who himself was experiencing harassment as one of the first black students at Meridian Junior College that fall. I wrote,

The students began to tell what had happened to them.  A white boy had thrown Coca-Cola on a Negro student at the school.  One of the white students had ‘white power’ written on his shirt.  Several white boys had eggs, and were bragging about what they were going to do to the ‘niggers.’ A white boy had pulled a knife out on a Negro girl, saying ‘This is meant for you.’ Also, some white boys had burned some books that they thought were Negro kids’ books (they were wrong.)

One student at the meeting said the high school principal, Charles Armstrong, always wants the black students  to tell him  the name of the white kids who do things.  ‘But,’ said one of the students, ‘Armstrong must know it is impossible to learn all those white kids’ names.’

One girl added, ‘He always wants you to go and get the guy who did this, when he knows good and well that you cannot go and get a 180-pound white boy and bring him to him.’

I quote Roscoe Jones as telling the high school students:

You are out at that school and you must stay , no matter what happens.

Stay they did,  and in my next blogpost, I will tell you what I saw at Meridian High School in 2011.

Arriving Again — Part Two

I drove on over the overpass into downtown, and was happy to realize I could still drive myself through the main business district. I had no trouble finding a place to park, and got out for a walk around town

Meridian, when I lived there in the 60’s, was a bustling town of almost 50,000 that served as the business center for several surrounding counties of Mississippi and Western  Alabama.  Downtown was an area about ten blocks square with one 16-story “skyscraper”, the Threefoot building,* and there were the usual department stores, banks,  churches, Kress’s, Newberry’s. shoe stores, furniture and hardware stores, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, train station, bus station, movie theater, restaurants, drug stores, hotels. federal courthouse and county courthouse. I don’t recall empty storefronts, though there may have been a few.

*While checking my recollections about Meridian on the web, I learned that Threefoot was the name of a prominent Jewish family, who emigrated to the Southern US from Germany in the 19th century and anglicized their name from “Dreyfuss” to “Threefoot.”  I don’t speak German, but I am told Dreyfuss means three foot.

A small part of downtown, centered at Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, was the “black ” section of town.  In that area there were several black-owned buildings and business, including Young’s Hotel, Fielder and Brooks Pharmacy, barber shops, and a taxi stand, Adjoining the “black” section of town, were shops owned by whites, but where blacks were welcome as customers. The first COFO office was on the second floor of the Fielder and Brooks Building (below left), and the second office on 25th Avenue (below right) were both in this section.

I was aware of the intricate rules of racial commerce, but as a white person with little spending money, I didn’t master them except to avoiding patronizing any place a black person couldn’t go.  There were restaurants where you could order standing up at the counter but not sit down; there were restaurants where you could not enter  the front, but could order take-out from the back door, and there were a couple of places with black seating sections. In a couple of the clothing stores near the black section you could try on clothes; in others you could buy clothes, but not try them on, and still others you just didn’t go in at all if you were black.

I learned to drink Coca-Cola in Mississippi the way a lot of kids learn to drink alcohol at college. It was cold and thirst-quenching, and, when I think about it, had the virtue of being sold  from the  red machines around town that took your money without ever looking at the color of your skin.  To my knowledge, no one ever tried to design a whites-only Coke machine.

As a college student in Cambridge, MA, I swam with the crowd, and was in no way conspicuous.  In the black section of Meridian in 1964, I clearly looked different.  I was a white woman walking on sidewalks mostly frequented by blacks. From the first, everyone was friendly, and spoke with the sort of warm greeting I wasn’t used to in the reserved North.  They all seemed to know who I was and what I was doing there, and, even if they didn’t come to civil rights meetings, everyone on the streets acted glad to see me.

The white section of town was totally different.  White people did their best to act as if I was invisible, or, if they let on that they noticed me,  slightly unsavory.  Rarely, I would get the slightest nod. Looking back, it’s hard to put my finger on what made me (us — this pertained to all the civil rights workers) look so “northern.” Definitely, long hair was different.  Southern white ladies at the time wore their hair teased and carefully pinned up and hair-sprayed into place, or occasionally in a tidy page-boy.  The only white people with long hair were country people, and I wasn’t  mistaken for a country person. Other than my hair, I actually observed a lot of fashion conventions: I wore skirts and dresses at all times, never trousers. I wore a little make-up, though I never mastered powder and foundation. When I dressed up, I wore a girdle and stockings and flats or heels, though not for everyday wear, when I walked across town once or twice a day. As I picture myself walking unacknowledged along a busy sidewalk of white people, I think there was something else, a self-confidence or openness that was not considered seemly, or even polite, in a  lady at that time.

In no time at all, after just a few days on the sidewalks of the Meridian in 1964, without a  word being said,  it became clear that I was welcome in black Meridian and some sort of a trespasser in white Meridian.

As I started to walk around town in 2011, I had no trouble getting oriented. Meridian has a plat of east-west streets and north-south avenues, and these were all pretty much in place as I remembered.  But what lined those streets, in both the black and the white sections,  were blocks of empty storefronts or vacant lots.  I counted 40 empty storefronts, before I stopped counting in discouragement. The once-proud Threefoot Building stands empty. Suddenly those big box stores on the Interstate had a more insidious meaning.  They have literally sucked the life out of downtown Meridian.  Almost the entire economic life of the city has moved to the malls. As I walked through town, I couldn’t tell if people were unfriendly or friendly, because I didn’t see much of anyone at all.

The block where the first COFO office was located is now mostly empty lots, but the Fielder and Brooks Building, still stands,  albeit vacant and crumbling. The building on 25th Avenue where the later office stood has been razed and is in a row of vacant lots. Here are a couple of pictures of that area in livelier times.

Standing in the midst of all the vacant lots and boarded up buildings, gleaming like a breadbox-shaped Taj Mahal, stands Meridian’s newly renovated City Hall, updated at a cost of more than $17 million.

Here is a picture of City Hall in 1964, and, except for the models of the cars parked around it, it looks almost exactly the same today, $17 million later. The Police Department was here. It was to this building that COFO staff and kids were taken to be booked the various times we were arrested.  And it was in a holding cell in this building that  I spent four days in jail in November 1964.  This wasn’t the city jail, but they didn’t have a jail block for white women, and so they held me here.  Ironically, City Hall was directly across the street from the second COFO office: we could watch them, and they could watch us.  (They evidently weren’t watching, the night the COFO office got a bullet hole in the window.)

People who care about downtown Meridian today have given up on economic development.  Instead, they are trying to turn downtown into a cultural and historic center.  A  group of citizens, led by Roscoe Jones, has gotten the Fielder and Brooks Pharmacy building designated an historic site because of its history in the 1964 civil rights movement, and  have received a grant from the Mississippi Department of History and Archives to initiate planning for renovations, with an eye toward being ready to open in the summer of 2014, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.  This is the office that Mickey Schwerner and his wife Rita, young CORE volunteers from NYC, opened in early 1964.  It was the office that Mickey and Andrew Goodman and James Chaney left from in June 1964 to investigate a church bombing in Neshoba County and where staff and friends waited anxiously by the phone for a call that never came.