Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement

Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement


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The story of a group of Jewish women who risked their bodies to fight racism

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814797754
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2002
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

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.

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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


The Greensboro sit-ins signaled a sea change in the civil rights movement,one that veteran Black activist Ella Baker had been preparing forsince her civil rights activism began in the 1930s. Immediately recognizingthe radical potential of the student-led sit-ins, Baker called ameeting of those who had participated in them. Held at Shaw Universityin North Carolina, April 15-17, 1960, this became the founding conventionof the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).The practical and philosophical contribution of Ella Baker to SNCC, thesouthern civil rights movement, and the entire student movement cannotbe overestimated. Baker asserted that what the movement neededwas "the development of people who are interested not in being leadersas 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 andmaximize the effectiveness of the local student movements. Baker, thenfifty-six years old and increasingly frustrated with the hierarchical styleof the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which shehad helped develop, challenged the students to consider the strategicquestion"[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, BarbaraJacobs Haber was privileged to witness the birth of SNCC. Shefound the convention "an absolutely mind-blowing experience, beingsurrounded by people my own age, including Black students, and talking,talking, talking, and singing, singing, singing." More than two hundredstudent delegates, representing more than fifty colleges and highschools in thirteen states, attended SNCC's founding conference.Through Baker's intervention, SNCC managed to stay separate frommore established civil rights groups like SCLC, CORE, and the NationalAssociation for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ratherthan enabling the students to evolve their own styles and strategies, thelarger groups simply wanted to harness students' energies toward thegroups' own goals. Characteristically staying out of the limelight, Bakernevertheless imbued the students with her own ideals of grassrootsparticipatory democracy and group-centered leadership.

    During the SNCC convention, Jacobs experienced the culture thatwould 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 andthe students and the whole enterprise. I just wanted to be a part of it."

    Returning to school, Jacobs was fired up to organize with COREand among the predominantly Jewish students at Brandeis. One dayshe 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 activistswould have to face throughout their movement tenure, especiallyin the South: that they were promiscuous, seeking, in particular,interracial sex.

    Vowing to return south, Dottie Miller came home from the thrill ofthe 1960 New Orleans sit-ins to "a series of awfully boring, horrible jobsduring that winter-spring." A job offer at the New York Department ofWelfare seemed a godsend because her weekly salary of $85 wouldallow Miller to get her own apartment. "This was big time," she recalls,until she got a call from her former professor James Moss. The SouthernRegional Council in Atlanta had just hired Moss and he offered Miller aresearch job. In June 1961, "they hired me over the telephone" and shewent to Atlanta immediately. SRC was one of several movement "halfwayhouses" that channeled young people into more direct involvementwith the southern civil rights movement.

    From June until September, Miller worked at the SRC and "tried towork up the nerve to contact SNCC." Even though that was her mainmotive 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 excuseto show up at the SNCC office.

    There she encountered the legendary "Miss Baker," as everyone respectfullycalled her. Baker had provided office space for SNCC in a cornerof SCLC's office. Jane Stembridge, a white student from Virginia, becameSNCC's first secretary. SNCC historian Clayborne Carson creditsBaker and Stembridge with keeping the organization afloat during itsfirst summer of 1960.

    In the fall of 1961, James Forman had recently become SNCC's executivesecretary. Forman, a Chicago schoolteacher who had alreadyparticipated in local antiracist activism in the South, had to be pressedinto 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 timeafter midnight. At first, only Norma [Collins] and I were working therefull-time. Occasionally field people would come in and Charles Joneswould be there and sometimes then Dorothy Miller ... and Julian Bondstarted coming in from time to time to help."

    From September to the end of 1961, Miller volunteered for SNCC atnight, while working at SRC during the day. Fired by the SRC in early1962, Miller believes it was because "the FBI came around [mentioningher leftist background]. And of course the SRC claimed it had nothingto do with that, but it did." Thus, Miller, like Jacobs (who had experiencedred-baiting in CORE), had to cope with the consequences of herradicalism. The ever-present threat of red-baiting could keep them fromdoing the work they passionately believed in.

    Fortunately for Miller, Forman had been biding his time, offeringher (miserably paid) full-time work with SNCC after she left SRC. Hehad recognized her potential contributions immediately. According toMiller, "Forman was an organizational genius. He could find out in fiveminutes what you knew how to do, and in his mind he had a place foryou to be.... He asked me the fateful question, which I teased himabout many years later: 'Can you type?'" Like many young Jewishwomen of her generation admonished by parents to acquire a "marketableskill," Miller could type well. Forman put her to work typing affidavitsfrom field secretaries returning from the front lines. "That wastraumatic," she recalls, but she also reveled in the importance of chroniclingthe early voter registration efforts of the small SNCC field staff.

    "These unbelievable people were sitting next to me saying, 'I tookMrs. Smith to the courthouse in Liberty, Mississippi [to register to vote]'and I'm sitting there typing the whole thing up!" Such work documentedthe scope of illegal attempts to deny African Americans theright 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 ofpatronizing her by saying, "'Oh thank you, little girl,'" Forman immediatelyasked her to work with Julian Bond on SNCC's newspaper, TheStudent Voice. Working together in a small room ("[w]e had a desk righton top of each other"), she and Bond began a lifelong friendship. Acrossdifferences of race, religion, and gender, they created an enormouslyuseful medium for communicating SNCC's needs, philosophy, andachievements. Bond, in fact, paid a poetic tribute to Dottie Miller Zellner'scontributions 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 onSNCC. In the early 1960s, it built community and morale among themovement's widely dispersed field workers and supporters. As SNCCactivist Faith Holsaert writes, "The Student Voice strengthened my identityas part of the Movement. I often knew about events before I read theVoice, but it gave me details and texture, knowledge which I shared withall SNCCs."

    At the time of its emergence, The Student Voice was one of the fewpublications reporting on the level of daily violence committed againstsouthern Blacks, as well as movement workers. Forman recalls, "In theearly days, our critical weakness was in the area of communications....The mass media of the country printed very little news at that timeof what was happening to Black people." Miller helped bring the realityof southern violence to national attention.

    Miller also began working on public relations outreach, an importanttask at that point in SNCC's development. She spent longhours putting out press releases, newsletters, and urgent telegrams tothe U.S. Department of Justice, seeking protection for SNCC fieldworkers. When she and Bond were in the office together, theywould 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, likethose of many other Jewish women who wrote about the movementand did fund-raising, played a significant though barely recognizedrole in shaping public perceptions of the movement. With such effectiverepresentations of movement work, designed to elicit legal,moral, and financial support, SNCC was able to rise to nationalprominence quickly.

    Miller adapted her skills and drive to this kind of behind-the-scenesrole, typical of Jewish women in the movement. She was able to getalong well with the early staff under trying conditions in SNCC's one-roomquarters because "I had no illusions from the outset that I somehowwas a leader of the organization, that I was in charge. I knew perfectlywell who was in charge, and I was very honored and happy to beallowed to be there."

    Ella Baker's quietly supportive modus operandi and her philosophyof group-centered leadership provided a political rationale thathelped Jewish women accept such roles. SNCC's ethic of putting thecommunity before the individual enabled them to create a place forthemselves in the most groundbreaking organization of their time.


Performing critical out-of-the-limelight tasks, such as typing affidavitsand doing public relations, did not preclude Jewish women from engagingin direct nonviolent confrontational actions, such as the ongoingsit-ins. They also put their bodies on the line in the movement's nextand even more confrontational campaign: the Freedom Rides. On May4, 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 rulingthat banned segregated terminal facilities in intrastate travel? Theywere 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 busburst into flames. The bus burned to the ground as state trooperstook the injured riders to a local hospital. In Birmingham, a whitemob met the second bus, attacking and seriously injuring several ofthe Freedom Riders. When CORE announced it was calling off therides, Black student leader Diane Nash and a group of SNCC-affiliatedstudents in Nashville, Tennessee, decided to continue them.The designated "riders" endured more violence until the Kennedyadministration reluctantly intervened, to prevent further violenceand direct confrontation between the federal government and racistsouthern officials.

    Determined to draw national attention to their protest, the riders onthe first two buses who were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, did notpay fines or post bond but stayed in jail for thirty-nine days, the maximumtime they could serve and still appeal their convictions for"breach of peace." To maximize the impact of its campaign, CORE decidedto 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 FreedomRiders were men; half were Black. Among the Black women wereleaders like Ruby Doris Smith of Atlanta. Among the white women whorevered them were a number of Jewish women, including recent Universityof Chicago graduate Carol Ruth Silver.

    On June 4, 1961, three weeks after the first Freedom Rides, Silverwent south for the first time, stopping in Richmond, Virginia. Beforemeeting her team of Freedom Riders, she stayed overnight with SueHarmann, one of two white women on the third Freedom Ride fromBirmingham to Montgomery. She told Silver about the white mobthat ambushed and attacked everyone on the bus, regardless of race,age, or gender. Undeterred, Silver moved on to meet her fellow FreedomRiders in Nashville. She went with the knowledge that her presenceas a white woman—and the only woman—riding with a biracialteam of male students was certain to inflame the white racists waitingin Jackson.

    On June 6, Silver waited in the Nashville SNCC office to meether fellow Freedom Riders—three Black male college students fromVirginia University and two white male divinity students from YaleUniversity. She listened there to the "war stories" of the Fisk Universitystudents who had participated in some of the first sit-ins andFreedom Rides.

    Silver and her five male colleagues left the Trailways bus station at1:15 A.M. in the presence of a lone United Press International reporter.They stopped for breakfast in Memphis, but Silver sat by herself becausethey did not want any trouble before arriving in Jackson. In her"Diary of a Freedom Rider," she writes, "We were afraid that if therewas anything liable to [create an incident], it was a white girl sittingwith Negro men. Southerners are so chivalrous!"

    They reached Jackson at 1:10 P.M. Uniformed police and a few reportersand bus drivers were waiting in the station. The group allowedall the other passengers to disembark first, shook hands with one another,and then moved on toward their destinations—the Blacks to thewaiting room marked "White intrastate," and the whites to the "Coloredintrastate." A reporter said to Silver, "We were told there was awhite woman in the group, but that she probably wouldn't go throughwith it." Silver pushed past him contemptuously.

    Inside, their "reception committee was more police, all of themwhite, all armed, all looking terribly serious." Then, in an elaboratelychoreographed scene, the police asked the young people if they wouldmove on. Refusing, they were arrested and taken to jail. When a reporterasked the policemen how many Freedom Riders there were, oneanswered, "There's three Black niggers and three white niggers." Silverhad stepped over the line deemed appropriate for women by southernwhite "chivalry." For that moment, at least, her gender and race matteredless than her politics. By virtue of her action, she was identified asa "nigger."


Arriving at the prison, Silver shook hands with her male comrades,who were taken to segregated men's cells. She was photographed andfingerprinted, deprived of her personal possessions, and locked in a celllabeled "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 Blackcivil rights lawyers. Then she made her one permitted telephone call,collect to her mother. She recalls, "Up to this point she had been withme all the way, but when this call came through, her anxiety got the betterof her. I talked and she cried about ten dollars' worth. Then I wasconducted back to my cell."

    For the first two days, Silver shared a cell with a southern whitewoman there for rowdy drinking. On June 8, 1961, however, four newyoung women (whom she refers to as "girls" in her diary) werethrown 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, fromDurham, North Carolina. The six women shared a cell measuring 13by 15 feet, including a 4-by-6-feet shower. During the day, detectivesquestioned the women, asking Silver if she had ever dated Negroboys and if she would be willing to marry one. She defiantly toldthem yes, that she had been engaged to a Negro boy once—a lie. Theyinquired into her religious beliefs and were intrigued with her self-definitionas agnostic, a term new to them.

    After what Silver describes as a four-minute hearing, the fivewomen were convicted of breach of peace and sentenced to fourmonths in jail, two suspended, and a $200 fine. They were movedacross the street to the Hinds County Jail, to a cell even smaller than thecell they had occupied in the Jackson City Jail. They shared that cellwith two white women arrested for drinking and another FreedomRider, Betsy Wychoff. Wychoff, forty-six, a former Mount Holyoke Collegeprofessor, had been the only white woman Freedom Rider in jailprior to Silver's arrest.

    On the afternoon of June 9, jailers threw in two more mattresses andtwo more Freedom Riders, Del Greenblatt, a Cornell University studentin medieval history, and Winona Beamer, from Dayton, Ohio. One weeklater, there were fourteen white women Freedom Riders sharing thecell. The newcomers included Lee Berman, 18; Claire O'Connor, a 27-year-oldnurse; 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 halfthe 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 ofsending 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 toParchman, they decided "to go on a hunger strike until either the boyscome back or we are sent there." They elected Pauline Knight (a Blackwoman) to speak for the hunger strikers in all three cells. Long beforethe advent of widespread feminist consciousness, these women wereunited in their belief that they should not be treated differently than themale activists.

    One of the immediate effects of the hunger strike was that WinonaBeamer passed out and was unconscious for a short while. After theyoung women complained and screamed, the jailer called a doctor, whogave her a respiratory stimulant. In her diary, Silver notes, "After awhile 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."


The brief hunger strike also caused conflict between Pauline Knight andsome of the white Jewish women. After hearing lawyer Jack Young'sadvice that hunger strikes would do no good, Knight decided that thestrike should be called off and announced that to the other two cells.Ruby Doris Smith's cell decided almost immediately to follow suit, butthe white women's cell had a long and "upsetting meeting" to discusswhether or not they too would do so.

    Most of the white women resented Pauline Knight for not consultingwith the other groups before telling the jailers about the strike andthen 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.


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

I Taking the Action

1 Going South, 1960–1963

2 Moving In On Mississippi, 1963–1965

3 Crossing Boundaries: Jewishness in the South, 1960–1967

II Seeking the Legacy

4 Uncovering Family Legacies

5 Exploring Many Ways of Being Jewish

6 Creating a Living Legacy: Passing It On

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