Metro Views: When blacks and Jews walked arm in arm

There was no Us and Them in the burial mound at Old Jolly Farm.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel 248.88 (photo credit: )
Rabbi Abraham Heschel 248.88
(photo credit: )
This has been a remarkable year for civil rights history in the US, the kind of year that many Americans my age - baby-boomers - dreamed of, but never expected to see in our lifetimes. A black man, Barack Obama, was inaugurated as president of the US in January - and in Philadelphia, James A. Young, a black man, was elected mayor last May. Not in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, known as the "city of brotherly love," but in Philadelphia, Mississippi, infamous in my lifetime for the 1964 murders of three young men, two Jews from New York and a black man from Meridian, Mississippi. "By any measure, for a city that is 55 percent white, especially one with Philadelphia's notorious racial past, to elect a black man mayor is remarkable," the local Mississippi newspaper, The Neshoba Democrat, said in an editorial. "The election illustrates just how far Philadelphia has come since three young men registering blacks to vote were murdered here by the Ku Klux Klan 45 years ago this June. Our reputation has been stained ever since as a racist, backward, bigoted backwater." In 1964, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, had gone to Mississippi for "Freedom Summer," in which busloads of volunteers - "Freedom Riders" - converged on the American South. They assisted blacks with voter registration, education and other basic civil rights that were persistently denied by local authorities and violently challenged by white supremacists. The Freedom Riders came from more than 30 states and 10 countries; about half the white Freedom Riders were Jewish. Goodman and Schwerner were jailed with James Chaney, 21, on June 21, 1964, on a minor traffic charge. They were released, ambushed, shot and then buried in an earthen dam on a site known as Old Jolly Farm, six miles southwest of Philadelphia. After a relentless search by federal officials, their bodies were found on August 4. It took decades for the state of Mississippi to indict a former Ku Klux Klan leader, Edgar Ray Killen, for the murders. In June 2005, he was acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter in the three deaths. Killen, then 80, was sentenced to 60 years in prison. THE MURDERS propelled the civil rights struggle in the US, engaging and outraging the federal government and inspiring a dramatic nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. As federal troops stood guard, 3,200 people began the 54-mile trek. At the head of the march Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a refugee, walked arm-in-arm with civil rights, political and religious leaders, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. "I am here because I am involved in the fate and dignity of my fellow man," said Heschel, then a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The Selma march seemed to symbolize the symbiosis of black-Jewish relations. It seemed to be the moment when there was no Us and Them, because blacks and Jews were equally unwelcome, equally pariahs in America. And that was not a time when minorities distinguished, ranked and compared their relative victimhood. There are legitimate communal differences between blacks and Jews and other minorities, but racism should not be one of them. Racism is not relative. Bigots are bigots; there are no partial bigots who can be forgiven for some "acceptable" bias. Bigotry encompasses racism, anti-Semitism, gay-bashing and other forms of xenophobia. It is folly for Jews to feel more at ease because the hate-crime statistics show other groups are more at risk than are Jews. That may be true today. What of tomorrow? Earlier this month, Obama spoke in New York at the centennial convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It is a revered organization, in which Jews played substantial roles, that has won some of the most important legal decisions on civil rights and education in American history. No doubt some question the continuing relevance of the organization as it welcomed the first black American president. It would seem that advancement indeed had stretched as far as possible, far beyond all dreams. Obama acknowledged the achievements of the NAACP, and he acknowledged that African Americans face some social and economic problems that other groups do not. However, as he spoke of the "pain of discrimination" in America, Obama had a laundry list of minorities' woes: Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country; Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion because they kneel to pray; and "our gay brothers and sisters," still taunted, attacked and denied their rights. Opportunity, he said, should be within the reach not only of African Americans, but of all Americans, of every race and creed. Obama closed his speech by referring to Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. "If three civil rights workers in Mississippi - black, white, Christian and Jew, city-born and country-bred - could lay down their lives in freedom's cause, I know we can come together to face down the challenges of our own time." The president was speaking to the NAACP, but the message should - must - resonate with American Jews as well. We are quick to spot anti-Semitism, often to the exclusion of other forms of prejudice. Let us remember: There was no Us and Them when the NAACP was founded. There was no Us and Them in the burial mound at Old Jolly Farm. There cannot be Us and Them now. This will truly be a remarkable moment in civil rights history when we, like Heschel, become "involved in the fate and dignity of [our] fellow man."