Jews in the Civil Rights Movement
Thank you for the excellent issue covering Jews in the civil rights struggle. The article evoked many memories for me. Following my discharge from the Army Air Force, I enrolled at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As someone who grew up in a diverse community in Massachusetts, I had never encountered extreme, or even nominal, racism. D.C., in 1946 had segregated transportation, the drinking fountains and toilets in department stores were segregated, and even my university enrolled no African Americans. I was both shocked and ashamed by it. As a Jew who spent time in Germany in World War II, I often guarded German soldiers. That experience strengthened my conviction that I would oppose segregation wherever and whenever it occurred. Your article made me very proud of the Jews, many of them unknown, who courageously sacrificed their lives to oppose policies that degraded human beings.
Samuel L. Simon
South Nyack, NY
I enjoyed two articles in the summer magazine which are seemingly unrelated, but actually have a very interesting connection. The cover shows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holding a picture of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, the civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964. Elsewhere, there is a wonderful article about my friend, Harold “Hesch” Steinberg, entitled “A Lifelong Dedication to Judaism.”
Both Mickey Schwerner and Hesch Steinberg were members of Alpha Epsilon Pi at Michigan State University. Schwerner transferred to Cornell University after his freshman year in 1957, and his association with Michigan State was largely unknown until a few years ago. As a direct result of Hesch’s efforts, Michigan State University has become aware of and embraced this connection, honoring Schwerner at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, and the local AEPi chapter hosted a Shabbat dinner and presented a plaque to Hillel in his memory.
In May 2012, I had the honor to represent AEPi International and MSU Hillel at an extraordinary program in New York City, cosponsored by the Cornell University AEPi, Hillel and Black Alumni Association. The program called “The Impact and Legacy of the Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney Case,” featured a panel composed of David Goodman, Ben Chaney and Stephen Schwerner, brothers of Andrew, James and Michael, respectively. These gentlemen, now in their 60s and 70s, shared some very unique perspectives on the Jewish role in the civil rights movement, the movie “Mississippi Burning,” their brothers and the impact of the murders on their families. The warm hospitality of the hosts, Ellen Braitman of Bloomberg TV, and her husband, David Shapiro, provided an intimate setting and allowed a rare and unique view into history.
Keego Harbor, Michigan
Past International President, Alpha Epsilon Pi
Member, Board of Directors, Michigan State University Hillel
My contribution in shining a light on the connection between our late Brother Michael Schwerner, Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity and Michigan State University has been greatly overstated. Past Supreme Master Steve Bernstein also shared the credit.
But there is a sidebar to the cover story (Summer 2012): Among those who resisted the inevitable march for the struggle for Civil Rights were the members of a quasi-governmental agency established by the State of Mississippi: the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. In December 1961, more than 225 Jewish teenagers and their advisers attended the Cotton States BBYO convention in Biloxi, Miss. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission sent spies to the convention hotel to determine if these young Jewish BBYO’ers (myself included) were intent on wreaking havoc on their way of life. Of course, we weren’t and we were not harmed. But it is easy to speculate on the mindset of the hate-mongers who followed and, a few years later, brutally murdered Brother Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis pays tribute not only to Dr. King, but also to all of the brave men and woman...black and white, young and old, Jew and Gentile...who left their blood along the long road to freedom. Brothers Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, along with many other Freedom Summer workers, are prominently featured in the museum’s exhibits.
Harold “Hesch” Steinberg
B'nai B'rith Magazine Blog
An archive of digital exclusive content that supplements the B'nai B'rith Magazine.
Letters to the Editor
To submit a letter to the editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.