I grew up in the South, the son of two liberal Jews who moved there from the Jewish shtetl of Brooklyn in the 1950s. I, like many others who had a similar background, particularly in the southern Jewish community, grew up with a conflicted sense of identity: Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian South, and southern in an overwhelmingly northern Jewish America. I took quiet pride in the role played by Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, in part to counter any inference of Southern guilt by association. And yet, as I grew up, I learned more of the complexities of the period. I learned of southern Jews (rabbis as well as lay people) who supported segregation, or states’ rights, or at the very least opposed northern interference into the lives of southerners. I also learned of the conflicts within the Civil Rights community, the indiscretions or prejudices of its leadership as well as its rank-and-file, the competition between communities and like-minded organizations, and the mixed motives of those involved in what is often portrayed as an unambiguously noble cause.
Going South, Schultz has made a very valuable contribution not only
to the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement, but also to the presentation
of Judaism in America."
In Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement, Debra Schultz continues to complicate our understanding of the people involved, and has provided more nuance to the growing historiography of that period. A self-described feminist historian, Schultz is not simply seeking to assert a female voice into a context in which it had been long silenced. Instead, to her credit, she is also seeking to provide a more complete image of the time by illuminating how dangerous were the activities undertaken by the women she interviewed, as well as how complicated were their motivations, and, often, how unfair were their male counterparts. Between the hostile Southern law enforcement officials, many of whom saw them as outside agitators, the members of the African American community, many of whom saw them as hypocrites, and their male co-workers (of any identity), many of whom saw them either as inferiors or as sexual targets (or both)—not to mention members of the Christian community, many of whom often saw them as religiously suspect, and their fellow Jews (North and South), many of whom often saw them as making waves—these white northern Jewish women volunteers of the early period of the Civil Rights Movement participated not just because of a sense of moral outrage that might or might not have been based on their understandings of Jewish history and theology, but also because of intense personal and spiritual needs left vacant by changes in American (and American Jewish) patterns of religiosity. In the end, according to Schultz, many of them unwittingly either participated in or reflected new ways of being Jewish in an America that was in the midst of significant cultural—religious as well as social—change.
In Going South, Schultz has made a very valuable contribution not only to the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement, but also to the presentation of Judaism in America. Through interviews and archival research, Schultz has retrieved the history of Jewish women rank-and-file civil rights workers (primarily those involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or "SNCC") who answered phones, coordinated activists and activities, and more than once participated in actions that put them in harm’s way. With this information Schultz has created a picture of the time that is both fascinating and illuminating. The first part of the book—primarily historical—examines the early years just before and just after the first Freedom Rides, while the second part—much more probing than the first part—examines the motivations, ideologies, family histories, and personalities of the women participating in the study.
There are many things this book is not. Although one can find references to Bella Abzug, Marion Barry, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Elizabeth Holtzman, this is not a book about the "celebrities" of the Civil Rights Movement. It is also not about Southern Judaism—or any particular religion in the South, for that matter. And although there are references to Southern clergy (rabbis as well as ministers), this book is not part of the growing conversation about the Southern religious reaction—pro or con—to the Civil Rights Movement.
What this book is, however, is an in-depth analysis of a small handful of Jewish women who participated in the Freedom Rides, the on-campus workshops and training, and the day-to-day business of the Civil Rights Movement. The picture that emerges is of women on the margins of all aspects of their social environment: Yankees in the South; European Americans in an increasingly African American-centered struggle; and women in a male-dominated political machinery. It might seem to be only the proverbial icing on the cake that they are Jewish—many of the participants in the study were only marginally so (in terms of either practice or participation). But this is the central element which brings all of the levels of marginality together: these women were not only marginalized by gender, race, and geographic orientation, but they were all of those things in the Protestant South, with (primarily) Protestant compatriots in the Civil Rights organizations. They were thus marginalized in and out of their organizational affiliations, truly strangers in a strange land.
In the end, the reader is left with a greater appreciation of the sacrifices made by these unsung heroes of the movement. The stories they tell present a vivid image of the dangers they faced, in part because of the work they were doing, and in part because of the company they were keeping. But many were also sacrificing something more than personal safety; they were also sacrificing their relationships with others—family, community, or friends—while engaging in an exploration of their own values and identity. The fact that so many remain committed to the goals of the movement today, working for, writing and lecturing about, or conducting workshops on civil rights and social justice, suggests that they have come to some resolution. But the power of their stories is in the struggle, not between men and women, not between African Americans and European Americans, not between northerners and southerners, not even between Jews and Christians, but between all of the various aspects of our identity. Schultz’s work—well worth reading—reminds us of the complicated nature of human identity, human relations, and the struggles between them both.
Eric Michael Mazur, Bucknell University
© 1998-2003 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234