By Willy Leventhal
Plains, Ga., where I now sat, seemed so peaceful…but the images of the gunshots a few weeks earlier in Americus, Ga. were still vivid. It had happened so fast—but at the same time, it was almost like a freeze frame slow motion film in the glare of the afternoon sunlight. The Klansman’s gun six feet from my face, the gunshots, the rush of adrenaline when I dropped to the floor beneath the steering wheel instinctively hitting the brake—and the car skidding to a stop. Then, the confused relief when the bullet holes and the blood I checked for were not there. My mind went blank for a few seconds, and then came the realization that I hadn’t been hit.
The images faded and the reality of Plains—closed down for the day—came back into focus. The sun’s final tapestry of colors began to fill the horizon. Plains, known for peanut farming, was a few miles down the road from Americus, the county seat. Plains would become a national dateline years later as the hometown of President Jimmy Carter, but back then it was nowhere of note. This little Sumter County hamlet was where I spent this mid-August 1965 day trying to encourage local blacks to do something that had in the past been almost exclusively “white folks biznez”—registering to vote.
My work for the day was done, and I was waiting for a ride back to Americus as I watched a couple of kids down at the train depot who were playing hide-and-seek around shipping crates filled with peanuts. Across the dusty tranquility of the town oval—Plains being too small for the quintessential southern town square—was a stocky young blond man at a service station in a baseball cap, drinking a few beers as he tossed a stick for his dog.
He paid me no attention.
It was past dinnertime, and the sky was now beginning to turn darker shades of orange and purple. The southern Georgia heat had begun to subside, and the shade of the porch made it less oppressive.
The ’55 Dodge pickup, a little on the raggedy side, with Judson Ford at the wheel, pulled to a stop, raising some sticky red dust from the clay-laden Georgia soil. David Bell, riding shotgun, leaned his head out the window and smiled a broad grin. David had an attractive ebony face that was a contrast between his adolescent mirth and apparent deep concentration beyond his years. David’s family had become my movement family, giving me a bed to sleep in, and meals…as had the Simmons’ back in Macon, Ala., beginning in mid-June.
“Hey, Willy,” David called. “Get in, brother. My mom be holding dinner for us. And, those collards be gettin’ …coe-lll-ddd (c-o-l-d).” With a smile, he continued: “I know they’re not your favorite, even when they be steaming.”
“OK,” I called back, picking up the voter registration leaflets, “and, big brother David, you’ll be glad to know that a nice elderly lady, not more than a mile out in the country, promised me that she would go down to the courthouse in Americus and ‘reddish’ [register]. And, even without you watching out for me, I got through another whole day without being shot at.”
A few days earlier, David had been trying to get new voters scheduled to go to the courthouse, when he and white volunteer, Bill Rau, had been attacked by two white men in a car who threw bricks at them, hitting Bill in the face, opening a wound that took thirteen stitches to close. As David tried to give aid to Bill, the two men got out of the car and attacked Bill with clubs. Had Bill not gone into the fetal position with his hands covering his head, as we had been taught at orientation by Hosea Williams and other movement military vets, he might have had a fractured skull, rather than broken fingers.
David gave me another big grin, and said: “None of those bad white dudes been chuckin’ rocks at you?” Judson, David and I laughed as I climbed into the pickup, still smiling.
Judson nodded at me, with a soft smile. He was twice David’s age of 17, but just as lean and hard. Judson Ford had served in Korea, and the day before, at Barnum’s Funeral Home, the hub of the movement in Americus, I saw him stick a .38 revolver in his belt as we were getting ready to go out in the country to pick up some movement folks who had been trying to solicit new voters among the few residents in the tiny villages of DeSoto and Leslie.
Surprised, I said: “Judson, what’s the gun for? I thought we were nonviolent?”
Judson had gazed blank–faced at me for a moment. And then, he had a long silent look that said, “I’m not sure if you’re for real, young white boy; or, if you can understand the implications of what I’m going to tell you, or about what’s really going on down here for that matter.” He then spoke without emotion:
"Oh yeah, we are nonviolent, little brother...Andy Young, even Willie Bolden and Big Lester, as tough as they are. All of Dr. Martin Luther King’s staff...J.T. Johnson, and Lula Williams, too. And, the good Lord knows Dr. King, our leader, is. But, Willy, this ain’t no demonstration we’re fixing to leave for right now. No TV cameras to help protect us, and I plan to get me and you, and the other youngsters back alive. There’s been more reports of heavy gunfire down in terrible Terrell County. I decided after Korea, even if I couldn’t vote when I got back, that I’d be a target for no Kluxer, or anyone else. You comin’?”
I had still been trying to wrap my mind around what Judson said as I drove our Dodge pickup—Judson riding shotgun beside me—from Barnum’s on down the hill to Lee Street, and then south on Highway 19. The gun didn’t bother me, and, in fact, it made me feel less afraid. That trip was one of more than a few times when my idealism and my faith in Dr. King’s teachings of nonviolence came face to face with the reality of southwest Georgia in the summer of 1965.
B’nai B’rith member William Korey sought to uncover the truth
The year 2012 marks the centennial of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth and the 67th anniversary of his disappearance. The occasion has been marked by the celebration of Wallenberg’s goodness and his achievements—the hundred thousand Hungarian Jews he saved from Nazi persecution—while the search for answers regarding his mysterious imprisonment and death continues.
William Korey, who died in 2009, worked with B’nai B’rith for decades, advocating tirelessly on behalf of Soviet Jews and other causes of importance to the Jewish people. He served as director of both the Anti-Defamation League as well as B’nai B’rith International’s United Nations Office in New York City. Korey was also one of the leading experts on Raoul Wallenberg.
Korey authored two books on the subject—“The Wallenberg Mystery: Fifty-Five Years Later” and “The Last Word on Wallenberg? New Investigations, New Questions”—in addition to writing op- eds for various newspapers, including one published in The Wall Street Journal in 1989 entitled “The Soviet Union Should Come Clean on Raoul Wallenberg.”
In 2006, Korey appeared before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to discuss the latest in what had been a decades-long search for the truth regarding the fate of Wallenberg.Click on the video below
to watch Korey’s testimony in front of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
Jews in the Military
I recently received from the B’nai B’rith Magazine and read numerous letters to the editor dealing with your article about Jews serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
My father, Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, served as the Military Attaché of Israel in the USA between 1950 and 1954 in the rank of Colonel. In his autobiography “Living History” (Pantheon Books, 1996), he depicted the unique situation which certain Jewish commanders in the U.S. army felt anti-Semitism at the time.
Isaac (Bougie) Herzog
Member of the Knesset
The Message of Passover
Allan Jacobs’ column in the recent issue of B’nai B’rith Magazine had more of an impact than you might realize. My immediate reaction to it was “My God, this is what I’ve been trying to impart to all the people who come to meetings and who have no idea what B.B. is all about except for the fact that they live in a B.B. building.”
I am an almost 92-year-old woman who has been a member of B.B. since 1941…over 70 years!!!! Oh, what glorious days they were! It was an “honor” to become a member and activity was bubbling over. I think I must have been chair of every position on the board including “President” three times…wherever I moved. Now I live at Homecrest House in Silver Spring, MD and am the closet advisor to our unit.
We held a general meeting recently which was conducted by our newly elected president, Sandy Wasserman, which went very well. I had mentioned your article to Sandy before the meeting, and she asked if I would read it. Well, I did…and it was so well received, the audience actually applauded. It was the first time that, for a good portion of the attendees, they ever heard an explanation of what B’nai B’rith is all about. Your message is so complete, so succinct; there wasn’t anything to be explained. Several people approached me later to thank me and to say it was an eye-opener.
Thank you so much for giving ME the opportunity to do what I’ve been trying to do for so long. Thank you again for your marvelous message. Let your imagination give you a big hug from me.
Silver Spring, Md.
The Jews of Berlin
As a former Berliner, I was very interested in the article about Berlin in the recent issue of the magazine. However, I noted that there was no mention of the wonderful Jewish museum in that city. It is fairly new, and visitors to the city should not miss seeing it. Also, the article about the B'nai B'rith lodge in Berlin did not mention what that unit is doing now. When my husband and I, and another B’nai B’rith couple were in Berlin in 1991, we were invited by the lodge president for a social evening and also spoke to the audience briefly about our involvement and work in the organization in the U.S. Many of the lodge members were from the former Soviet Union and quite a few from Israel.
Your article in the spring magazine brought lots of memories. Born in Berlin, my grandfather’s name was Louis Schachmann. My father’s name was Carl Schachnann. They both were members of B’nai B’rith. I remember my grandfather showing me on his gold chain hanging a little gold triangle which was an emblem from B’nai B’rith. My grandfather had been a president in one of the synagogues you mentioned; however I cannot remember which. I just know that we had a big silver bowl with an inscription about my grandfather serving as president.
My best regards to you,
Postcards from the Holocaust
I was both amazed and excited to read Dara Kahn's account of Torkel Wachter's project in the spring issue of the B'nai B'rith Magazine. I was amazed because his serendipitous find of the 32 postcards led him to an ever expanding understanding of his family relations, his roots and ultimately his identity. It is a personal story with an historical background that should take its place among Holocaust literature, never to be forgotten. I was excited, because I have come unexpectedly into possession of a collection of correspondence of my uncle, who had saved all the letters and postcards written to him by his family and mine when they were still in Germany, in Poland, or on the way to the Americas. That mail dates from the last years of World War I (1917) and ends abruptly in the middle of World War II (1941). It is written in German (many in the old German script) and Yiddish.
I am in the process of organizing this material, preserving it, translating it and drawing on it for an expanded memoir I have written but not published. Needless to add, as an 87-year-old Jewish refugee and grandfather, I feel an urgency to complete my project and would also welcome some help with my work.