The Pursuit of Justice: The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
June 21, 1964: Rock Cut Road in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The first Jews to stand on this spot were murdered here.
In the early 1960s, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – like many progressive Jews at the time – were actively involved in the civil rights movement. Both men joined the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that fought for integration in businesses and schools, and voter registration rights for African Americans. In June of 1964, Schwerner and Goodman traveled to Meridian, Mississippi, with James Chaney – another CORE activist and Schwerner’s close friend – to investigate the bombing of the Mount Zion Baptist Church. Mt. Zion had been bombed a few days prior for its designation as voter registration spot open to African Americans.
The three young activists spent the morning of June 21, 1964, visiting the homes of Mt. Zion congregants. While driving between houses, they were pulled over on the side of the road and arrested by the county sheriff on account of their supposed involvement in the church bombing. After paying bail, the three were released. The sheriff, however, followed the trio in his car as they drove the stretch of road leading away from the police station. He pulled them over again and forced them toward desolate Rock Cut Road, where members of the KKK were waiting. Schwerner and Goodman were shot to death at point blank range and Chaney was brutally beaten and shot three times in the face. All three bodies were buried in a nearby dam.
As might be expected, prosecuting a crime committed against an African American civil rights worker and his Jewish Yankee counterparts was not high on the state’s priority list. This spring, one man – 79 year old Edgar Ray Killen- will be the first person to be tried by the state of Mississippi for the murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman.
June 21, 1999: I am standing with a group of African American and Jewish activists on Rock Cut Road – exactly 35 years after Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were murdered.
Our group has traveled by bus from New York through Greensboro, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Selma to be here together. Led by James Chaney’s younger brother Ben, we are here to acknowledge the achievements gained in the 35 years since James’ murder and to remain conscious of the work that still must be done. It is a heady and proud moment for me to stand witness on this spot with other Jewish activists. We are the legacy of Schwerner and Goodman and others like them – men and women who risked and lost their lives fighting against the painful social and economic disparities that plagued 1960s America. These individuals fought for these rights not because they were personally discriminated against, but because they believed – as Jews - that no one is free until everyone is free.
In the larger group of activists at Rock Cut Road, I represented the Chicago-based organization, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA). Founded in 1964, JCUA is the country’s oldest explicitly Jewish social justice organization. JCUA’s mission is to combat poverty, racism and antisemitism in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities. Some of JCUA’s current and founding board members and staff once marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, and Washington, D.C., and worked with him to fight for fair housing in Chicago. These are the people I was humbled to represent that day in Mississippi.
JCUA’s genesis came in the mid-1960s, when the national spotlight shone on the unrest and anger in the South. At the time, Chicago held the dubious distinction as the most segregated city in the country. Separated by race and economic status, members of African American, Irish, Polish, Latino and Jewish communities remained planted on separate turfs. There was a tacit understanding that it was not safe to travel beyond community boundaries. This xenophobia was only strengthened by the city-sponsored public housing high-rises, which were populated mainly by poor African Americans. Falling prey to the common practice of redlining – which denied them the mortgages they needed to buy homes in traditionally white neighborhoods – most African American families were left with few alternative housing options. Although they were lauded at the time as beacons of social service, the public high-rises were chronically mismanaged and often ignored, and eventually came to be seen as part of a coordinated effort to maintain de facto segregation. It was not long before they became pockets of poverty and crime.
During the 1960s, JCUA’s founder, Rabbi Robert J. Marx, was active in organizing communities around fair housing issues through the Inter-religious Council on Urban Affairs. Marx recognized that although Jews throughout the country were working on issues of racial and economic justice, there was no organized Jewish voice speaking on the issues in Chicago. Although he valued his work with the Council, he believed an organized Jewish presence would embolden the effort. Marx, however, lacked the proper funding to create the organization he envisaged.
In 1964, Saul Alinsky - a pioneer and legend of community organizing, and Marx’s good friend - told a Vice President of the Merrill Lynch Trust about the work Marx was doing. A few days later, the V.P. stopped by Marx’s office and handed him an almost unbelievable check: for $15,000. As Marx tells it, “I thought he was going to give me $100, so it was like winning a million dollars.” Fifteen minutes later Marx received a call from a friend at the Jewish Federation of Chicago. He told Marx he had a young man in his office, Lew Kreinberg, who was interested in working on urban issues. A few days later, Marx hired Lew as JCUA’s first staff member, and the organization opened its doors.
Meanwhile, a storm of racial and economic unrest was brewing on Chicago’s West Side. For decades, the neighborhood had been home to a strong Jewish community. In the 1950s and 60s however, the West Side fell prey to the larger American trend of white flight. In a period of 15 years, the West Side’s demographic shifted dramatically as middle-class Jewish families fled for the suburbs and African American families moved in. Property values fell, and formerly thriving local businesses closed up shop. Feeling a “responsibility” to stop the trend, some local banks used redlining tactics on the West Side, leaving African American homebuyers out in the cold. Left with little choice, the African American buyers fell victim to panic-peddlers. On the West Side a small contingent of unscrupulous, mostly Jewish realtors would, in one activist’s words, “buy the home on Friday, paint it over the weekend, and sell it to a poor black family on Monday for twice the price.” Many African American homeowners, unable to pay the exorbitant interest rates on their homes, were literally tossed into the street with their belongings.
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God's Unchanging Hand
Our 610 Back Pages
Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
Run Like the Wind
Josh Tells a Bedtime Story