Members of the Washington Freedom Riders Committee prepare to leave New York for Washington, D.C., on May 30, 1961. Bettmann/Corbis.

Our Unsung Civil Rights Movement Heroines

When it comes to the civil rights movement, most people know that two Jewish men—Mickey Schwemer and Andrew Goodman—and their Black colleague James Chaney were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. What most do not know is that Andrew Goodman had been in Mississippi for one day when he was killed. Rita Schwerner had been there for six months when her husband was murdered by a white supremacist gang because he was “an agitating, troublemaking, nigger-loving, Communist, atheistic Jew outsider.” Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman are mythologized as Jewish civil rights martyrs. But what happened to the woman who risked her life, did the hard daily work of organizing in Black communities for six months, faced her husband’s murder, and who managed in her grief to point out to the media that the only reason they noted James Chaney’s death was because he was murdered with two white men?

History will remember Rita Schwener as the widow of a martyr; she sees herself as an ally of the civil rights movement. I see her also, and significantly, as a Jewish woman activist. She was one of the most visible of the numerous Jewish women who went south from 1960-1966 to integrate public facilities, teach in Freedom Schools and adult literacy campaigns, participate in sit-ins, freedom rides and voter registration drives, and get arrested.

Why Did They Go?

Most were relatively privileged, well-educated Northern students who could choose to come South to work in a social justice movement; they came from backgrounds that both encouraged and limited their life choices; they were the children of Jews struggling to assimilate into American culture without losing their Jewish connection entirely; they were white women in a movement led most visibly by Black men; they were competent and experienced women willing to take action before the feminist movement made it legitimate to do so; they were secular Jews in a Black Christian movement working in the anti-Semitic and virulently racist South. They were risking their lives for democratic ideals.

The experiences of the women I interviewed suggest that Jewish origins were a motivating factor. Whether or not they were religiously affiliated, they were exposed to a Jewish moral framework about social justice—diffuse as it might have been in Jewish liberalism. This often included explicit injunctions against anti-Black racism. And almost all the women I interviewed had absorbed a consciousness about the Holocaust at young ages, certainly a factor in engendering their desire to “fight back” against racism and injustice.

Several of the Jewish women I interviewed used similar imagery in describing Jewish experiences under the Nazis as one motivation for their involvement in the civil rights movement. Dorothy Zellner (née Miller), born in 1938, as an adolescent read “zillions of books about the war and about the Holocaust.” She posed to herself the question, “If I had been alive in 1943 in Warsaw what would I have done? And I decided very early on that I would have had to fight.” Barbara Haber, a California psychotherapist born in 1938, said that “what it meant to be a Jew was ‘never again,’ and what ‘never again’ meant was not never again to Jews, but never again to stand by and let things like that happen.”

Harriet Tanzman, a freelance writer, teacher and Pacifica radio producer who has made it a mission to preserve the legacy of the civil rights movement, worked in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama between 1964 and 1966. She likened her generation to children of Holocaust survivors. Born in 1940, she told me, “We were the children of the people who had gone through an absolutely devastating experience. If they were in this country, they felt that there but for complete chance they would have been, we all would have been, dead. There was a tremendous sense of injustice in the world and at the same time [they were] raising children to think that they should lead a moral and just life, [to] be there for themselves—the whole individualism was very strong—but also to have some sense that you are there for other people, whether the other people are Jews or whoever they are, but to take some stand or to try to avert the injustice in the world.”

Trudy Orris joined her husband, a military doctor, in Germany, at the end of World War II. As Orris put it, “Whenever I met anybody German, I would say to them, ‘What did you do during the war?'” One evening, a German musician said to her, “If you’re asking me if I was a coward, I was a coward. I knew what was happening, but I couldn’t do anything about it. My best friend was taken away. What are you going to do when your turn comes?” Orris recalled, “I stopped, I couldn’t answer him. I was really stunned. I said I didn’t know what I would do but I would hope that I would do the right thing.” The man said, “What you hope and what you do are two different things.”

“When I came back to the United States I was a different person. I felt that the most important thing that I could do is to work in the Black movement. If anything happened, then somebody didn’t have to say to me, what did you do?”

Leaving Home

Growing up in the 1950s, these college-educated, second- and third-generation Jewish women ran right into the dilemma of what to do with their lives when they realized they wanted more than marriage and family. “The concept of getting married, living happily ever after, and not doing anything after that, always bewildered me,” recalls Janice Goodman, born in 1938 and now a lawyer in Manhattan. “I did a lot of housecleaning as a child. I did not see cleaning the house as an occupation.”

The need to escape confinement to the home is a recurrent theme. For the primarily urban Jewish women I interviewed, images of suburban life symbolized the trap they sought to avoid. I asked Rita Schwerner Bender what enabled young Jewish women like herself to face the danger of going South. “I did not see myself as saving anyone,” she replied firmly, “but I did have a view of saving myself from a split-level house [in the suburbs].”

After she described a “horrible” jail experience in Albany, Georgia, that included a hunger strike, I asked Miriam Glickman, who was born in 1942, why she stayed. She replied: “There wasn’t anything else I could have been doing at the time that had anywhere near the pull that this did, of helping make the world a better place. I mean what were the alternatives? I could go back and get a 9-to-5 job somewhere. Those days women were teachers, nurses, and psychologists/counselors. And Jewish women weren’t nurses. So I had the other two to choose from. I would have stayed forever down there.”

Telling Mom

Once young Jewish women made up their minds to go South, they faced two hurdles—figuring out the organizational connections that would get them there and telling their parents. Sociologist Doug McAdam, who studied participants in the 1964 Freedom Summer, has argued that women had to be “overqualified” to make it to Mississippi in order to overcome sexism in the selection process and parental resistance. They had more activist experience prior to going South than the men, though the roles they played in the projects were often more limited.

The word that best characterizes parental reactions is “ambivalent.” Because their daughters were usually acting in consonance with the values they taught at home, parents had a hard time arguing against the morality of the impulse to take action. Still, naturally, they were frightened for their daughters’ safety, and all the more so after the disappearance of Goodman, Schwerner and Chancy in June 1964.

When Carol Ruth Silver, a San Francisco lawyer and former politician, told her mother she was going South on one of the early Freedom Rides, Silver recalls: “My mother said, ‘You’re going to kill me, you can’t do this, it’s dangerous.’ I said, ‘Mother’—I remember this conversation very well— ‘This is what you taught me to do and this is what you taught me to be. If I don’t do it, then I will not be true to all that you have taught me.’ She knew it was true and she was very frightened for me.”

Ilene Strelitz Melish, now editor of the Stanford Daily, had a much more difficult time with her mother during the training session for the 1964 Mississippi Summer at Oxford, Ohio. Sara Evans, in her 1980 book Personal Politics quotes Melish:

“She sent me a telegram signed with my brother’s name saying that she had had a heart attack and I must come home immediately (none of which was true). Telephone calls, with her screaming, threatening, crying until I hung up, came every day. After the phone calls I would disappear into the ladies’ room, and cry out the engulfing rage and accumulated frustration. When I recovered, I desperately threw cold water on my face as it was rather well advertised that there were psychiatrists around looking for people showing signs of breaking down and who thus should be weeded out before they got to Mississippi. Mississippi had nothing over a Jewish mother and I had conscious fear of some unseen psychiatrists spotting me red-eyed and misinterpreting the source of my difficulty.”

Freedom Riding

A little history: The major civil rights campaign in the South after the catalytic 1960 Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins was the Freedom Rides. On May 4, 1961, an initial group of 13 Freedom Riders (three white female, three white male, seven Black male members of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality) left Washington, D.C., in two buses. They planned to ride through the South to New Orleans to test the 1960 Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia, which banned segregated terminal facilities in interstate travel. They were 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 bus burst into flames.

The bus burned to the ground as state troopers took the injured riders to a local hospital. In Birmingham, a white mob met the second bus, attacking and seriously injuring several of the Freedom Riders. The designated riders endured more violence before the Kennedy administration reluctantly intervened.

CORE decided to fill the jails and put out a national call for Freedom Riders. By the end of the summer of 1961, 328 had been arrested in Jackson, two-thirds of them college students. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant number of the white women Freedom Riders were Jewish. Three-fourths of them were men and half were Black. Among the Black women were young fearless leaders like 19-year-old Ruby Doris Smith, whom several of the Jewish women cited as an inspiration, including her fellow Freedom Riders Carol Ruth Silver and Elizabeth Slade Hirschfeld.

On June 6, Silver, three Black male college students from Virginia University, and two white male divinity students from Yale left the Trail ways bus station at 1:15 a.m. in the presence of a lone UPI reporter. The group arrived in Jackson at 1:10 p.m. After allowing all the other passengers to disembark, they shook hands with each other and moved to their destinations—the Blacks to the waiting room marked “white interstate,” and the whites to the “colored interstate.” At that point, one of the reporters came up and asked if they were Freedom Riders. When they said yes, he said to Silver, “We were told there was a white woman in the group, but that she probably would not go through with it.” She replied, “Well, that certainly did not come from me,” as she brushed by him into the waiting room.

In a scene that had been elaborately planned by the police, they asked the white students if they would move on. When an interviewer asked the policemen how many Freedom Riders there were, one policeman answered, “Wal, there’s three black niggers and three white niggers.” For that moment, at least, what mattered most was not that she was a white woman; by virtue of her action, she was identified as a “nigger” of no specific gender. Arriving at the prison Silver was taken to a cell labeled “adult white female.” In Mississippi’s segregated prison system, her race and gender did matter.

Jewish Women in Southern Jails

On June 8, 1961, four new young women (Silver refers to them as “girls” in the detailed diary she kept during her incarceration) were thrown into her cell. During the day, detectives questioned the women. They asked Silver if she had ever dated “Negro” boys and if she would be willing to marry one. She told them defiantly, yes, that she had been engaged to a Negro boy once, which was a lie. They also interrogated her about her religious beliefs and were intrigued with her self-definition as agnostic, a term they had not heard before.

After what Silver described as a four-minute hearing, the five women were convicted of breach of peace and sentenced to four months in jail and a $200 fine with two months’ suspended sentence. By the following Friday, there were 14 white women Freedom Riders sharing one small cell in the jail. Silver’s diary points out the rather startling fact that more than half the women in this tiny cell of 14 white women Freedom Riders were Jewish. Among the women were Helene Wilson, 26, from Washington, D.C.; Teri Perlman, 19, from New York City; and Jane Rossett, 18, from Durham, North Carolina. Betsy Wychoff, 46, a former Mount Holyoke College professor, had been the only white woman Freedom Rider in jail prior to Silver’s arrest. On June 9, jailers threw in two more mattresses and two more Freedom Riders, Del Greenblatt, a Cornell University student in medieval history, and Winona Beamer, from Dayton, Ohio.

On June 13, the three cells of women (one white and two Black) discussed going on a hunger strike to protest the stated intention of sending the male Freedom Riders to the notorious Parchman Prison, where it was rumored that they would be put to picking cotton. When they learned on June 14 that the young men were taken to Parchman, they decided “to go on a hunger strike until either the boys come back or we are sent there.”

On June 21, four more Freedom Riders from California were thrown into their cell, bringing the total number of white women to 18. There was not enough room to throw all the mats down on the floor, so they slept three people to two mats and five people to four mats. The same day the Black women in two cells of six and seven each were thrown into one cell. All 13 Black women were put in one cell to make room for a drunken white woman who occupied a whole cell herself, presumably to protect her from both Black and white Freedom Riders.

“It Was Hard Not to Fight Back”

On June 23, they heard the news. All the women were going to be transported to Parchman penitentiary, where the male Freedom Riders were jailed. Silver describes the four-hour ride in the paddy wagon between Jackson and Parchman as more frightening than any previous part of the whole jail experience:

“Twenty-three girls, white and Negro, were crowded into a truck that had no springs and bounced along toward an unknown future. Many of us had black and blue marks when we arrived because the drivers delighted in stopping and starting suddenly which threw us against each other and the sharp comers of the seats. But the most terrifying part of the ride was the three occasions when the driver suddenly jolted off to the side of the highway and stopped. We imagined every horror, from a waiting ambush of the Ku Klux Klan to mined roads.” For Elizabeth Slade Hirschfeld, this experience evoked, she said, images of Nazis and concentration camps.

In the maximum security unit at Parchman, the women lived in a more menacing environment. In one incident that affected both Silver and Hirschfeld profoundly, Ruby Doris Smith was physically abused by three jailers for refusing to take a shower unless she was given shoes to prevent her from getting athlete’s foot. Three women guards took her to the shower in handcuffs, put her in the shower, scrubbed her with a floor brush, concentrating especially on sensitive areas of the skin. They also knocked her down a few times while holding onto the handcuffs.

The reactions to this incident highlighted a salient difference between the approaches of the Jewish women and their Southern Christian comrades. When Smith returned from the shower, Silver and her cellmate were “burning with anger and frustration” after seeing the dark welts on her wrists. Then Smith’s voice came from her cell, where she was lying down. According to Silver’s diary, she began to speak of Christian brotherhood and love and “how we must not hate because that is a victory for the evil forces which we are fighting.” She talked of mental nonviolence, “which is just as important as physical nonviolence—a returning love for hate, sympathy for oppression.” Silver recalled that it was very hard for her to accept this approach in her anger, but she did spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Meeting violence with “Christian” love was a basic tenet of the movement, one that was not part of the culture of the northern Jewish volunteers: as Dorothy Zellner described her concept of Judaism, “People were out to get you, they were gonna kill you and it was a mark of honor to fight back, yes, to resist.” And yet, because they knew it was not their movement, Jewish women accepted the discipline and strategies of Black leaders based on what theologian James Cone named in his 1970 book, A Black Theology of Liberation.

Working Together

Of the Black-led civil rights organizations working in the South, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960, provided Jewish women with the broadest opportunities to work at the grassroots level with local people. Charles Sherrod, director of SNCC’s Albany, Georgia, project, created interracial teams of civil rights workers because he wanted to “free southern Blacks from their fear of whites.” On such a team, in the spring of 1963, 19-year-old Faith Holsaert, a Jewish New Yorker, went to work in Terrell County with Prathia Hall, a Black woman from Philadelphia. They lived and worked closely with Carolyn Daniels, a local Black hairdresser and a formidable organizer who was, according to Holsaert, “really the center of SNCC activity in Terrell County. We couldn’t have made any inroads in Terrell County without her support.”

That same spring, Antioch College student Joni Rabinowitz, daughter of radical lawyer Victor Rabinowitz, came down to Albany, Georgia, to join the SNCC staff. In Personal Politics, Sara Evans cites a “stinging series of reports” written by Joni Rabinowitz to indicate that women were aware of having second-class status in SNCC. Sexism in the civil rights movement, the New Left and other 1960s social-change movements is often mentioned as a spur to the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s. In 1963, Rabinowitz wrote: “The attitude around here toward keeping the [freedom] house neat (as well as the general attitude toward the inferiority and ‘proper place’ of women) is disgusting and also terribly depressing.” This was a precursor to tensions that would erupt later when greater numbers of white women participated in SNCC.

While acknowledging the movement’s sexism, some Jewish women SNCC veterans insist that it was more egalitarian than most organizations of its time. Holsaert, now a community college teacher, fondly recalls Sherrod, “sexist to the core,” nevertheless challenging her to acquire skills she would need to survive in the violent Albany movement: “Faith, I don’t care whether you grew up in Greenwich Village where no one drives a car. You must learn to drive a car to be a soldier among equals in this movement.”

The Civil Rights Marches

During the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit mother of five, was shot to death by the Klan while driving a young Black man, Leroy Moton, who survived the attack by playing dead. Harriet Tanzman, who knew Moton from Selma, was “in an interracial van a half hour later going down the same road so there but for whatever go the rest of us.”

Jacqueline Levine, today a community-relations activist from New Jersey involved in anti-racist work and Jewish causes, who flew in for the Montgomery rally at the end of the march, had a somewhat more idealized experience. Although she had wanted to go to Birmingham in 1963, there was no Jewish organizational framework in which she could participate, as she did for the 1963 March on Washington. Because there was a small American Jewish Congress contingent going down to Selma, she felt more comfortable going, she said, and pleased to be participating as a Jew.

Later, as president of the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress and a vice-president of the Council of Jewish Federations, Levine invoked her experience in Montgomery as she appealed to the General Assembly of the Council for women’s equality in Jewish life.

“Seven years ago I participated in the glorious March from Selma to Montgomery, a march undertaken for the purpose of securing voting rights for all Americans. I stood, one balmy Alabama night, under a starry Alabama sky, and I heard the never-to-be-forgotten voice of Martin Luther King ring out in his never-to-be-heard-again prophetic cadences as he said, ‘We are all witnesses together.’ He did not mean witness as onlooker, witness as voyeur. He meant witness-participant. And so are we women, when we ask to share in communal responsibility, asking to be witnesses, participants, in our own Jewish community.”

Jewish women had multiple motives for going South, but clearly their primary impetus was to be part of a democratic movement to fight racial injustice. Like many young people of their generation, they sought to hold America to its democratic ideals. Going South also provided adventure, “authentic” experience (in which theory and practice were linked), a sense of community, and—for some—an escape from boring jobs, difficult families, the prospect of marriage and life in suburbia. It provided an opportunity to explore one’s “vocation,” to experiment with different identities. For some of the women I interviewed, those experiments included their first interracial collaborations; assuming leadership; being an activist; and experimenting with sex. Through it all was the intoxication of the “freedom high,” of danger and of putting one’s full self on the line for a just cause.

Dr. Debra L. Schultz is a founder and Acting Director of the Women’s Program of The Open Society Institute (Soros Foundations Network), which works to include women in the development of more democratic societies. This article is based on a book she is now preparing for publication.

Suggested Reading

How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America by Karen Brodkin, (Rutgers University Press, 1998).

Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism by Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith (Firebrand Books, 1988).

White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness by Ruth Frankenburg (University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

The Issue is Power: Essays on Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (Aunt Lute Books, 1992).