As a historian, I have spent the past five years looking for anti-racist Jewish women role models, hoping to place them in a radical Jewish tradition to which I could feel connected. Rather than simply writing theoretically about racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, I wanted to portray women who took action in a decisive moment in American history. So I began to study Jewish women who went South for the civil rights movement.
I discovered that in the decade between the terrors of the McCarthy years (the 1950s) and the beginning of the women’s liberation movement (the late 1960s), Jewish women’s experiences in the Southern civil rights movement had nearly disappeared from history. And even in the burgeoning field of Jewish women’s history, Jewish women’s experiences in the Southern civil rights movement have yet to make it into our canon.
Born in 1961, the same time as the Freedom Rides, I grew up in a household with only tenuous connections to Jewishness and progressive politics. But like the women I interviewed, my family did pass on the message that being Jewish created an obligation to discern and fight for “what is right.”
When women’s history came my way in high school, I embraced it. Feminism became my tradition, not Judaism. Women’s history became my practice. Women, I was fond of saying, are my people. However, that left a number of questions unanswered. These questions circled around as I began to think about a topic for my Ph.D. dissertation. Why had I spent so many years in women’s studies examining the history of every group that has been “othered” except my own? Why couldn’t feminists break the impasse over accusations of white women’s racism? There were other questions, but the most generative one was: what kind of Jew did I want to be? These questions required role models who shared my values and who had weathered such controversies.
The civil rights movement was the crucible in which, during my own lifetime, racism was contested and “second wave” feminism forged. Despite the general consensus that Jews were well represented among those fighting for racial equality in America, Jewish women were barely visible in movement histories. I felt driven to find them, talk to them, and record their stories. I began to search for Jewish women civil rights veterans to interview.
Their stories fill gaps in several historical narratives: American Jewish women’s history, civil rights history, and the history of Jewish radicalism. The stories invoke a long tradition of Jewish women’s activism. Finally, the women’s lives demonstrate that there are many ways of being Jewish, including fighting for social justice.
Jewish women have actively tried to better our world, yet until very recently they have been invisible in our history. Many Jewish scholars analyzing the civil rights movement have trouble acknowledging those activists who are women, and civil rights scholars often have trouble recognizing secular Jews as Jews. Civil rights historians focus on religion, rather than ethnicity, as driving forces for civil rights movement activism. This makes it difficult to analyze the motives of the predominantly secular Jews who went South. As I examined their backgrounds and beliefs, I saw a clear link between activists’ Jewishness and their civil rights involvement.
This is not an attempt to “claim” Jews who do not want to be “claimed” against their will, but to showcase these essentially non-religious Jews for young people today attempting to establish diverse connections to Jewish tradition.
Writing Jewish women civil rights activists into history gives access to new perspectives and questions that go beyond obvious “Jewish concerns.” The 15 Jewish women with whom I conducted in-depth interviews could have chosen to pass as white, but instead they embraced the fight against racism as their own. I see their experiences as a precious historical resource.
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.
1954 — In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court declares segregated schools are inherently unequal.
1955 — Rosa Parks and the black women of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council lay the foundation for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1960 — The Woolworth lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, launch a wave of nonviolent protests in the North and South. The Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee is founded.
1961 — On May 4, the first bus of Freedom Riders organized by the Congress of Racial Equality leaves Washington, D.C. When CORE suspends the rides in response to intense violence, SNCC activists Diane Nash and John Lewis continue them.
1963 — Sheriff Bull Connor responds to nonviolent protests in Birmingham, AL, with police dogs and fire hoses. Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers is murdered. Dr. King leads the March on Washington. Four girls are murdered in a Birmingham church bombing.
1964 — Hundreds of volunteers go South to organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer project and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. President Lyndon Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
1965 — Malcolm X is murdered. Marchers are brutally attacked on a bridge in Selma, Alabama. Media coverage turns the world’s attention to the Selma-to-Montgomery march. The 1965 Voting Rights Act becomes law.
1966 — The concept of “Black Power” gains popularity within SNCC and with the founding of the Black Panther Party.
1968 — Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy are assassinated. Richard Nixon is elected president.