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Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Letter from Mississippi

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During the 1960s civil rights era, when African-Americans and their white allies risked life and limb to abolish segregation in the South, Mississippi, a bas­tion of diehard resistance, was invariably in the eye of the storm of that historic struggle.

Freedom Riders from the northern states converged on Mississippi to register disenfranchised Af­rican-Americans and desegregate white-only public facilities. U.S. marshalls accompanied James Mer­edith to the campus of the leafy University of Mississippi in Oxford,  thus enabling him to become the first African-American student to enrol at Ole Miss.

Jackson – the state capital whose attractions range from Eudora Welty House to the Mississippi Museum of Art – was caught up in the spiralling turmoil.

Medgar Evers, the leader of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was murdered by a Ku Klux Klan member, Byron De La Beckwith.

Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, the Toronto-born spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation, Jackson’s only synagogue, which serves about 230 families today, was awoken from his sleep when a bomb planted by the Klan exploded in front of his home. He had incurred the wrath of white supremacists – not to mention some of his own  rattled congregants – by aligning himself with the cause of equal rights. The  Nussbaum incident occurred about two months after Beth Israel was da­maged in a bombing perpetrated by the KKK and condemned by a coalition of clergymen.  

One of Beth Israel’s congregants, Beatrice (Bea) Gotthelf, now 90, remembers that dark epoch quite vividly.

“It was a frightening time,” she said in a recent interview conducted in the office of the Gold­ring/ Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, which supports congregational religious schools, provides rabbinic and cultural services and maintains a web-based archive on Southern Jewish communities.

Gotthelf, who was born in Jack­son and whose ancestors from Al­sace settled in Mississippi in the 19th century, was not a firebrand like Rabbi Nussbaum.

“My husband and I were not actively involved in promoting civil rights,” said Gotthelf, whose father was president of the Rotary Club and chair of the Chamber of Commerce and the school board. “Nor were my friends and acquaintances involved. That would have been too large a step to take. We couldn’t put our lives and that of children in jeopardy. The Klan was after the blacks and Jews.”

Intellectually, however, the Gotthelfs were in total sympathy with the aims of the civil rights movement, believing that integration was morally the right path to follow.

“Bea is a real hero to the Jackson Jewish community today,” said Stuart Rockoff, the director of the history department of the Gold­­ring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. “She, along with a handful of other members from Beth Israel, worked to bring about peaceful change in a time of tremendous fear and violence.”

He added, “Hers was a minority view perhaps, as most Jackson Jews feared the re­percussions of speaking out.”

Much as in apartheid era South Africa, the south­ern states, though having lost the U.S. Civil War over slavery, were committed to preserving Jim Crow laws, regulations and customs (under which African-Americans were denied the most basic services and freedoms) and were resolutely opposed to civil rights and desegregation.

To liberal Americans who abhorred white-supremacist doctrines, Mississippi seemed  to be the archetypical southern state.

In 1946, Theodore Bilbo, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, declared, “I am calling upon every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see that no blacks vote.” And in  a suggestion rife with visions of KKK members burning crosses, he said ominously, “The best time to do it is the night before.”

Mississippi’s small Jewish community –  which consisted of 6,420 individuals at its height in 1927 but which has declined to 1,500 people today – was keenly aware that white supremacy was an article of faith among many whites and quietly complied.

As Rockoff has written, “During the civil rights movement, many Jews shared the prejudices of their white gentile neighbors, although others spoke out in favour of racial equal­ity and integration.”

Craving acceptance, Jews assimilated into Southern culture, embracing its values. Some Jews, including an anonymous writer of a pamphlet titled A Jewish View of Segregation, were dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the racist status quo.

Published in 1956 under the auspices of Citizens’ Councils of America, a white supremacist group formed after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision calling segregated schools unconstitutional, the pamphlet was essentially a defence of segregation and a critique of national Jewish organizations, such as B’nai Brith, that supported desegregation.

The still-unidentified Jewish author wrote, “I am wholeheartedly in favour of the advancement of the coloured people of the State of Mississippi. I am wholeheartedly opposed to the thinking of those who claim it can be achieved by integration.” In an impassioned plea, he urged white Southerners, both Christians and Jews, to “maintain segregation.”

Gotthelf and her late husband, Harold, a shopkeeper born in Vicksburg, Miss., disagreed with these bald sentiments. Harold, who died in 1987, aroused the indignation of  the Citizen’s Council by attending a meeting at Tougaloo College, a historically African-American institution in Jackson. Several of its students had been arrested for trying to read books in the “white only” public library, and as a result, Tougaloo Col­lege was carefully monitored by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded  agency that staunchly op­posed desegregation.

In November 1962, one of its investigators, A.L. Hop­kins, filed a report saying that Harold Gotthelf had been present at a meeting at Tougaloo College, thereby unmasking him as a race “traitor.”  

Gotthelf’s father-in-law, the proprietor of a dry-cleaning store at which her husband helped out, was in trouble, too, having refused to abide by a Citizens’ Council order to fire a worker who was trying to desegregate schools in Jackson. “You will lose business,” he was warned. “You better watch out.” The warning turned out to be nothing more than a bluff, said Gotthelf, a spry woman.

She is of two minds about Rabbi Nussbaum, who served Beth Israel from 1954 to 1973 and moved to San Diego, Calif., after his retirement. “He was unbelievable,” she said. “He put his life on the line. His congregation was not too happy. But he had an unfortunate personality. He could be abrasive, argumentative and self-centred. He didn’t have a personality that drew you to him. But I agreed with him politically.”

At one point, she and her husband considered leaving Mississippi, but shelved the idea  after concluding that racial progress was partially dependent on people like herself and her hus­band. “I was afraid that nothing would change,” she explained. “I felt a responsibility.”

Although she has lived long enough to have witnessed the dawn of a new age in racial relations in Mississippi, she thinks that many whites still hew to white supremacist beliefs.

Yet times have changed. Jackson, whose population is predominantly black, has an African-American mayor, and its airport is named after Medgar Evers, the martyred African-American civil rights leader.

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