Fifty years after Freedom Summer, civil rights volunteers reflect on activist lives
At the Freedom Summer anniversary conference in Jackson, Miss., the activists who registered black voters and taught in Freedom Schools under the threat of violence 50 years ago stood up to introduce themselves.
It took three hours to hear what they did in the Magnolia State back in 1964 and have gone on to do in the half-century since.
“Almost everyone had a social justice connection,” said Heather Booth, who went to Mississippi as a college freshman from New York before moving on to a career as a nationally prominent liberal activist. “The former volunteers went on to work as teachers, environmental activists and in the field of health care.”
Organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Freedom Summer sent mostly white college students to Mississippi to confront the violent racism in the state.
In the summer of 1964, some 1,500 volunteers worked registering blacks to vote, teaching in Freedom Schools and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which aimed to challenge the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention that year.
Jews were represented among the young civil rights volunteers in numbers far exceeding their share of the population.
Debra Schultz, the author of “Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” said that like other SNCC activists, Jewish Freedom Summer volunteers were motivated by a desire to hold the country to its full promise of democracy. Many were inspired as well by their Jewish and often left-leaning backgrounds.
“Among particularly ‘Jewish’ motivations, we can cite: an identification with another racialized people and a passion for racial justice, born of the recent experience with the Holocaust,” Schultz told JTA via email.
Booth said that she came to Mississippi a year after visiting Israel, where she made a commitment at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to struggle for justice. Schultz noted that her synagogue had funded the $500 bail money required to participate in Freedom Summer in the case of an arrest.
The first days of Freedom Summer saw the murder of three civil rights workers — Jewish New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and black Mississippian James Chaney, who had been investigating the burning of a black church. During the weeks-long search for the workers, the bodies of eight murdered black men were found in the Mississippi countryside before the discovery of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner’s remains.
Tension and danger lurked throughout the summer.
There were another four people critically wounded, 80 activists beaten, 1,000 arrests, 37 churches and 30 black homes or businesses bombed or burned.
Booth recalls feeling frightened all the time that summer.
“But it was also very exhilarating,” Booth said. “There were nightly meetings at black churches, with a lot of singing.”
In Shaw, Miss., where blacks were neglected, Booth said she felt honored that her hosts generously gave up their beds for her and three other volunteers.
“In the black part of town, there were no toilets, no sewers and no street lights,” Booth said.
Booth continued her activism after Freedom Summer. She became involved in the women’s movement, founding Jane, an underground abortion counseling and referral service in Chicago. She went on to serve as the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund and Americans for Financial Reform. She also coordinated grassroots efforts to win passage of President Obama’s first budget.
Based in Washington, D.C., she currently consults for and advises a variety of liberal advocacy groups.
At the anniversary conference in late June, Booth was one of more than 200 former Freedom Summer volunteers in attendance. They met with nearly 2,000 younger activists.
Larry Rubin, a veteran labor movement activist who came to the reunion from Takoma Park, Md., worked on the SNCC staff as a young man from 1961 to 1965, first in southwest Georgia. In early 1964, he went to Mississippi to set up the infrastructure for Freedom Summer.
Rubin said that when he trucked donated books to the Freedom Schools, he was pulled over, roughed up and arrested by police who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. (But when he came back to Mississippi later as a labor organizer, he recalled, a policeman who had once threatened to kill him if he ever again showed his face in his town praised his efforts to unionize a local business.)
When local blacks faced harassment, he said, all the civil rights workers could do was offer to report it to the federal government.
Rubin left the SNCC in 1965 as it was turning toward Black Power and whites were being pushed out of the organization. Rubin recalls feeling a sense of relief, like he was dismissed and could go home.
He returned to university studies to learn more about his Eastern European Jewish roots, just as the Black Power movement was encouraging African-Americans to embrace their heritage.
Rubin, who grew up in Philadelphia, said his civil rights work was influenced by his parents, who taught him to fight for social justice because of what his grandparents went through fleeing Europe.
But while many volunteers were Jewish, their backgrounds were not necessarily at the forefront within the movement.
“In the 1960s we didn’t discuss being Jewish, and we didn’t bring up our motivation for getting involved in the movement,” Rubin said. “There was no space to discuss Jewishness.”
Bob Moses, the well-known black civil rights leader and Freedom Summer organizer, told JTA that he was not aware at the time of participants’ Jewish identities.
“I didn’t know if Freedom Summer people were Jewish,” he said.
At the anniversary gathering, however, it was a topic of discussion, with a breakout session focused on Jewish participation. Also, concurrent with the reunion, the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life organized events on Jewish involvement in civil rights and social justice activism.
Freedom Summer volunteer Annie Popkin said her family was very aware of discrimination because her father was shut out of Harvard Medical School due to quotas that limited the numbers of Jewish students. At times her family embraced their Jewishness. Other times they turned away from it, seeing it as a painful liability, she said.
She said she was “so ready to go” south when organizers recruited students like her at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass.
Popkin started early in her activism. When she was 12 or 13, Popkin said, her mother took her to a picket line to demand fair housing in her hometown on New York’s Long Island after a black family who moved into the white section had their house burned.
Later, in ninth grade, she and a friend organized pickets of Woolworth’s in New York City in support of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South. Once when she was picketing, Popkin said, a woman shouted at her, “You’ll make my husband lose his job, and that’s not nice of you!”
“I realized I was not going to be a nice 1950s girl,” Popkin said in a telephone interview from her home in Portland, Ore., where she works as a counselor.
By the time of her Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had already disappeared. Freedom Summer organizers feared the worst.
But Popkin remembers feeling optimistic as hundreds of black and white SNCC volunteers locked arms, held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
“Just imagine if everyone in the country could feel this spirit and see this vision. Wouldn’t people want to end segregation?” she recalled thinking.
Popkin calls her optimism naive.
“It was so moving to be part of the embodied vision of beloved community we were creating in working together, singing together, risking our lives together, believing together,” she said. “We knew what was right, and we spent our days and nights organizing for it.”
She went to Vicksburg, Miss., where she gathered signatures for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She witnessed the threats and reprisals — economic and physical — that kept blacks from attempting to register to vote.
“We got to see the strong consequences of what we were doing,” Popkin said.
Popkin, who went on to become involved in the women’s movement and teach women’s studies at various universities, pointed to the value of recalling the experiences of rank-and-file civil rights activists like her.
“There’s been a media emphasis on leaders in the civil rights movement and not the individuals who participated,” Popkin said. “All of our stories can be inspiration. If we could make change at 18, 19, 20, so can others today.”