Zev's Road to Insurrection
Every human being has responsibilities to him or herself, to family, friends and community, nation and to the world, but not everyone finds themselves facing a death penalty for helping fellow citizens register to vote or otherwise achieve their rights. We cannot always be the one to act, but to be fully human, must always look to do the best we can. We all do some things well and fail at other times. How did I get there through both education and other support from my community and decisions of my own?
In Kibbutz Shoval in Israel, 1959, I read of a small community in Georgia where Christians were attempting to live up the fundamental principles from which their movement emerged. They shared all things in common as their apostles had, and respected all their brethren with no discrimination as to class or caste. They had studied their sacred text enough to realize that the one they believed part of the divine trinity forbade resort to military force even to defend God and suffered ‘capital punishment’ at the hands of the supposed defenders of civilization to show that ‘whatever you do to the worst of them, you do to me’. The occasion for the press report was the bombing of their recently rebuilt roadside store. The rebuilding had been necessitated by a previous bombing. I had experienced communal democracy in the kibbutz, but wasn’t aware Christians actually practiced it (I later was to learn of many others who do). With their kind invitation, I spent the summer of 1959 living in this Christian community, Koinonia, outside Americus in Sumter County, Georgia.
I knew something about racism and of the violence needed to preserve it. I grew up Jewish during WWII as the son of an immigrant father who spoke many languages and who brought home refugees as dinner guests. I had joined with older students in anti-segregation campaigns in Minneapolis as a high school student. These were often ‘radical’ students on the GI Bill from WWII who otherwise might not have had the opportunity and were more aware of what was going on than most younger students coming direct out of high school. I learned from these Jews, Unitarians, Quakers, and Marxists of several stripes, Black and white, straight and gay (though the latter were so suppressed I didn’t know they really existed until much later). I also became increasingly convinced that attempts to better the world or defend ourselves militarily seemed to always backfire, and was influenced as a high school senior by a spokesman of the remnants of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement in India, who spoke at a church near campus.
Study of how the terror bombing of the cities of Europe by British and US air forces extended WWII into the period when most of the holocaust took place by crystallizing support for the Axis regimes reinforced this conviction. I saw how the bishops of Europe were led to their pastoral letter of December 7, 1941 calling on the faithful to pray for the victory of German arms came not because they were evil people, but at least in a major part, from watching their parishioners viciously crushed and burned alive in our army’s indiscriminate terror bombing. Meanwhile Danish fisherman non-violently moved 95% of their Jewish community to Sweden and the German women of the Rosenstrasse (see the movie available on DVD, “Rosenstrasse”) demonstrated non-violently against their government as their city was being bombed, and saved most of the Jewish men of Berlin.
Minneapolis schools were largely segregated with assigned attendance lines gerrymandered to, for example, send Negro and poor white students to Central and middle class whites to Washburn, then known as the ‘cake-eater’ school. I attended U High on campus, which had few African American students, none in my class. I observed the segregation of the Chicago’s South Side as a student at the University of Chicago.
While the leftist kibbutz worked for equality among Israel’s citizens, Jews from wherever and whatever color, the Bedouin Arab neighbors and other Arabs whether Moslem, Druze or Christian, I saw attitudes among all these communities that reminded me of the piously denied bigotry I had seen in Minnesota. A Moslem Arab roommate in the kibbutz, who had fought with Israel’s Haganah in its battle for independence, was arrested on a technical paperwork violation, which would never have been pressed if he were not an Arab. Nevertheless, I was shocked by what I saw in Southwest Georgia, and particularly the fear and enormous social pressure on people to conform. The level of fear was even higher a century after the Civil War than in Israel in the midst of war. At the end of the summer I accepted an offer of a scholarship from Koinonia to a training session in Miami in nonviolent resistance to oppression by the Congress of Racial Equality. There I learned techniques to peacefully, lawfully and respectfully investigate and actively oppose injustices.
Upon entering the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, I met some of the very few students of color and learned that only a small minority of these were African Americans (the term then was Negro) from local communities; and learned of some of the problems which led many to prefer Black colleges and universities in the South. Responding to problems in finding rooms, some of us determined to test housing advertised as available where students with darker skins – some at the time were Persians brought here by the State Department to enhance relations with the regime our military/intelligence agencies had installed there, as I recall. The students would go to see the room, be told it had already been taken and then see it still advertised. Those initially involved included, in addition, friends from high school, members of HaBonim labor-Zionist youth group, and students who just were at the same spot for lunch or who sat next to us in classes. Out of this came a student group called Students for Integration, or SFI (the group of Minnesota students Congressman John Lewis, then chairman of SNCC, referred to in his recent interview in the STrib). We soon sought to support fair housing and fair employment legislation at the state level introduced by a then-young new legislator named Don Fraser. These eventually passed, and helped to begin opening housing and jobs, though the rules are still imperfectly applied.
In the mean time the sit-in movement began to sweep the country’s lunch counters and other public facilities. We organized support for it here. Then seven of us responded to the call for Freedom Riders to realize the rights of all Americans to equal accommodation on public transportation, and six were arrested and imprisoned in Mississippi’s 50-square mile Parchman Farm prison. Others stayed behind and developed a strong support organization.
Hundreds of people around the country took part in these demonstrations and a dramatic visible advance was made toward the rights recognized even by the Supreme Court years earlier. Even though ending the crudest forms of racism encoded in legal segregation attacked only a small part of the disease, it attacked it at the roots. The ‘white’ majority could now see their ‘Negro’ cousins in everyday pursuits along side themselves. For millions this exposed the lie that we were different races. The gains were uneven. I recall returning by train to Mississippi for trial, to find that the railroad had responded to laws that it not prevent Negroes from using its dining cars even in the Deep South by leaving the dining car behind in Memphis before entering Mississippi.
This struck me as particularly ironic since I knew that the famous Pullman cars, the pride of American passenger railroads, were largely manned by Negro crews. The great US passenger rail system was eventually dismantled, and the newly desegregated dime stores with their lunch counters soon followed. Each lasted a bit longer because of the new clientele desegregation provided, but fell victim to the suicidal theory that every enterprise must stand or fall entirely by its own bottom line with no regard to the effect on the society as a whole, or even on the broader economy.
The irony of the Pullman cars, by the way, was not unique. Company histories of Mercedes and Audi have forgotten since the Nazi era that they are named after grandchildren of the same Prague rabbi. Sears, founded by a Black Minnesotan and grown into a catalog colossus by a Jewish family came to discriminate in employment against both for several decades. Then, of course, there is the matter of people who called themselves Jews, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus and members of other movements founded on principles of universal unity of humanity, actively involved in enforcing the horrors of racism.
I do not view the contributions of non-Black members of the civil rights movements as selfless. For one thing it was clear to many of us then, as to many now, that we were on a ship of state headed for an iceberg and a chilling death unless we changed course. For another thing, many (not all) of us were ‘off-white’. By that I mean that we were members of groups whose ‘whiteness’ was in question and who had to choose between extreme racism as a defense, or taking the risks of opposing racism. The six ‘white’ Minnesota Freedom Riders, for instance, were three Jews, an Irish Catholic, a Quaker and a Unitarian. However, my hosts at Koinonia included descendents of plantation ‘owners’, devout Baptists whose change of heart came from deep study of the founding principles of their faith.
While our decisions to face Mississippi prisons might seem spur of the moment – one of the Minnesota Freedom Riders, for example, saw a friend sitting outside the initial meeting and upon learning why we were there decided to join us -- they were in fact based on experiences, conscious and subliminal that caused us to identify with our fellow citizens beyond the bounds that seemed obvious to most Americans.
In my case, that experience included growing up in a secular Jewish household, hearing at the dinner table of the horrors of the murders of European Jewry. My father, an immigrant to the US who spoke many languages, brought home refugees from whom I learned first hand of the terror that Nazi and other Fascist regimes imposed on Jews, Roma (‘Gypsies’), Slavs, political and religious dissenters, and others. At the end of the war we attended a picnic for people being resettled in the Twin Cities. I think we had been invited because my father could assist in translating. My brother and I rolled down a grassy hill with other kids. At one point kids began discussing which concentration camp they came from. I couldn’t understand when some said they came from camps in California (where I was born) or Arizona. When we got back into the old Studebaker and I could ask my parents what they had meant, the answer permanently altered my perception. It was the first I knew of the American archipelago of concentration camps for Americans of Japanese decent and some others. A refugee guest at our house was enraged to hear that investigation of charges of collaboration with the Nazis was being dropped against Prescott Bush, later a Connecticut senator, and George Herbert Walker (the president’s grandfather and great grandfather) and their associates; he said he had been forced to work as a slave in a steel mill their banking conglomerate controlled. The world was not made up of good guys and bad guys but of brothers and sisters who were both. As a high school student I was attracted to any who resisted racial and economic discrimination, but as I met people from around the world I was gradually impressed by the boomerang effects of attempts to advance humanity by violent response to evil, eventually even to extreme evil.
By the time I was in Israel I was already refusing to carry a gun and very reluctantly refused to accept dual citizenship in Israel because the terms refused it to Israeli Arabs who had been forced out or left to study abroad. My pacifism was respected at Kibbutz Shoval, but on a bus once when I refused to hold a soldier’s gun while he climbed aboard, telling him I was a pacifist, I got my nose tweaked with his gun barrel.
Once experiencing violent abuse, however, it appears to me that people I encountered became committed to the course for which they were attacked.
It was the nonviolence of The Movement that allowed white Southerners like Jimmy Carter and much of his family – among many others -- to move to public support for realization of human rights and which committed many civil rights workers, after being attacked to lifelong devotion to this cause. This can be for good or evil; by the same token, as mentioned, the massive terror bombing of the cities of Europe and Asia by the US and British air forces crystallized desperate support behind the Fascist regimes of the Axis. The brutality of Sherman’s march to the sea through Georgia effectively destroyed the popular determination of Confederate supporters to continue the war; and just as effectively determined the century and a half of violent attempts to resurrect the old slave South. Those who stood and stand to gain might have been expected to recidivate anyway, but the large number of poor whites needed to support them would not have been there without the brutality of the Union Army. Now that the advocates of the proposition that a country is only free where some are free to enslave others are back in power, the number of prisoner slave laborers based on race and class in our massive for-profit prison-industrial complex is fast approaching the peak number of pre-emancipation slaves. In essence Sherman produced a broader support than there had been before, to continue the civil war by other means. These were equally violent, but on a somewhat smaller, less public scale. Shortly after the war, it was the same army that carried out Sherman’s brutality, which even more brutally enforced the re-enslavement of the freedmen. This has impressed me as an important lesson on the limits and effects of physical coercion. Nothing changes until there is effective resistance, but the nature of that resistance determines the outcome. The English clergyman-poet, John Donne, saw reality vividly when he wrote, “on earth ends and means are so entangled that each new means brings different ends in view.”
In 1959 I applied for Conscientious Objector status from my draft board, after discussing simply refusing to comply with a Quaker mentor whose advice I valued. His contention was that to apply gave a chance to educate the board members and to give them a chance to do the right thing. I wanted to contribute an actual service to my country, rather than, as I saw it, betray humanity, my country, my family and friends and my own honor by taking the easy road and abetting in a brutal invasion of a country that had done us no harm.
Conflicted, the Board eventually classified me 4F, politically unacceptable. I felt free to choose my own service and volunteered to be a member of the new Soul Force of full time non-violent civil rights workers being organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (then a non-violent direct action confederation of local committees of racial equality; later taken over by right wing ideologues with an opposite agenda). After months of training and work in the national office, I was dispatched to Chicago to work with Midwest CORE groups and cooperate with other civil rights groups. We worked together with SNCC and the NAACP, but also church groups, the Steelworkers, UAW and Teamsters and others to get food and other necessities to people in Mississippi and elsewhere in the deep South, already impoverished and now blacklisted for standing up legally and non-violently for their rights. Many of the donations came from people of Chicago’s ghettoes, poor themselves, but determined to help those even worse off – though they rightly called Daley’s plantation ‘Mississippi North’.
We worked with people in Northern Minnesota and North Dakota where Negro soldiers and athletes were hassled by drunken white men, often armed, in bars – as is apparently still a problem in St. Paul, though the assailants then were only occasionally equipped with a badge.
In the spring a long time worker for equality and reconciliation, a Mississippi born and bred white postman whose wife was Black, a CORE activist, set out on a journey of reconciliation from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Bill Moore hoped that Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett would respond to a plea for brotherhood from a fellow native white Mississippian. He held a press conference and announced that he was using his accumulated vacation time to walk to Jackson, Mississippi with a personal appeal to Governor Barnett. He walked through Tennessee and Dade County, Georgia pulling a little red Radio Flyer wagon and wearing ‘sandwich signs’ reading ‘Eat at Joe’s Black and White’ and similar messages. As he entered Alabama, the governor went on radio and TV and announced that Bill was a Communist (probably untrue), a race mixer, a former mental patient and an atheist (probably true); and that he would be denied protection of Alabama law. He was shot and killed. His widow, with a copy of his letter, asked if anyone would carry it on.
His project had been individual, but many of us felt it had to be carried on and ten of us set out from Chattanooga to carry his message on. Five were Black and five white, five from CORE and five from SNCC. We were all male, a surrender to the racists’ obsession about white women with Black men. One of us, Sam Shirah, was the son of the pastor of the new governor, George Wallace. This time the world press accompanied us along with a circus of evangelists, sympathizers, and opponents throwing stones, bits of concrete and whatever. I was interviewed in German (which I don’t speak but had a class in high school) for Mainzer Fernseh (Mainz TV). Churches invited us to visit, spend the night. Along the way we had been able to speak to many people and felt that we had been effective both in engaging white people who had never engaged in free debate with a ‘mixed’ group before and in showing support for the local Freedom Movements with whom we joined in mass meetings. Then we approached the Alabama border to face a barrier of state police with big clubs. The German cameraman was struck hard across the chest with a big club. The ten of us were arrested along with two SNCC witnesses whom the Alabama troopers went into Georgia to arrest. We were put in the local county jail where the Sheriff told us he had nothing to do with it, wouldn’t have arrested us, and successfully sued to get us out. We were then moved to another county with the same result. Then we were put in the Kilby state prison, where we were held on the old death row where the Scottsboro Boys had been held. Eventually we were tried and ten of us were convicted and released on bail. Congressman Don Fraser came to the trial and we felt that his presence was a protection for us and for our attorney, Fred Grey, then the only Black attorney in the state. Al Lingo, Wallace’s state police chief, who had given himself the new title of Colonel, sat in the entire trial though he was also a witness. When the judge acquitted one SNCC member, he placed his gun on the table in front of him. When the judge acquitted a second, he spun the barrel. The judge didn’t acquit any more.
I was recently shown a document on the net from Alabama’s defunct State Sovereignty commission listing dangerous civil rights workers and Klansmen. The implication was that peaceful and legal work to protect the rights of all Americans and the terrorism of the Klan with its beatings and murders were equivalent! Next to each picture was the reason the person was so dangerous. In my case it was one word: Pacifist.
I was asked to go back to Koinonia and Americus to help SNCC and the local Sumter County Movement in its voting registration drive. There, I was the closest Soul Force member to Tallahassee, Florida where a student-led movement was working to open public facilities. Two of the leaders of this movement, with whom I stayed, were Patricia Stevens Due and her husband John Due. Pat had been one of the other participants in the CORE training session four years earlier in Miami. The students were picketing a movie theater. Theaters were all segregated, whites downstairs, Blacks upstairs. The students also were working to open eating-places. Most were from the Black Florida A &M University, like the Dues, but a few were also from the white Florida State University which now had a few Black students in some graduate schools.
One of the students, Betty White, was from the small town of Dunnellon. She asked me to come down since local youth, mostly high school students, were picketing a local restaurant, I think it was called Mrs. Mac’s. It was a sit-down restaurant in this stop along the tourist route, but would serve African Americans only if they came to the back door and took their food out. Betty was concerned that the students had no outside connections, having acted out of generations of pent-up oppression, and that the situation was extraordinarily dangerous to them. I went with her and we showed them how to meet a local standard to use signs without sticks, to walk single file, and to not block doors. We got them connected to outside organizations which could spread the word at least of violent retaliations. On a second trip I tried to show the group’s photographer how to take pictures that would be more useful in court if necessary, by including landmarks such as the name of the café in the window, and noting time and other information for each picture. I took a sample picture for him and a squad car pulled up.
A deputy sheriff asked if I knew the county’s vagrancy statute. I acknowledged that I hadn’t read it, but was employed, had cash and a paycheck and a ticket out of town – normally a defense against such a charge. He asked me to get in the car. I asked if I were under arrest. He said no. I offered to answer any questions, then, where we stood. He said that then I was under arrest. I handed the camera back to its owner (which I was later told constituted ‘resisting arrest’) and got into the car, driven by a local Dunnellon officer. They took me to the local police station. While the deputy walked off to make a phone call, the local officer asked me how long I’d worked for the New York Times. When I said I didn’t, he said I’d better tell that to the deputy because he’d been following me because he thought I was a photographer for that paper.
I offered to show identification and pulled out my bus ticket, but the deputy angrily told me to shut up and get into his car. We drove a long way to an intersection where a man who later identified himself as Chief Deputy Geiger as best I can recall, ordered me into his car and drove me to Ocala, a town known for its extremism. I again asked with what I was being charged and he angrily told me to shut up if I knew what was good for me. He led me into his office and asked if he could record a conversation. He then asked me my name and maybe some other things and told me that I was under arrest, that my rights would be protected. He then turned off the recorder and spat out hatefully that if it were up to him he’d slit my throat. He later lied and denied saying it.
A deputy was then told to take me to the white drunk tank where he threw me in, telling another prisoner that I was a Freedom Rider. I then was beaten and kicked for some time and my head slammed repeatedly against the rim of the toilet until a white woman in the hall outside screamed “They’re killing someone in there! Stop them!” I was told she was the mother of a prisoner who had called her attention to what was happening. The deputy then opened the bars and pulled me out, throwing me onto a steel sheet that served as a bed in a small space surrounded by bars. After a while I was moved to a tiny cell entirely surrounded by solid walls and a steel door. The door had a small window covered by a steel door controlled only from the outside, as was the light. It did have small bed with a thin mattress. It was clean, appeared newly painted.
When I fell asleep from exhaustion from the beating, the window door opened, some people looked in, giggled and turned on the light. I sat up and tried to look around, so they turned off the light. This process continued for some time, I had no way to tell how long. I think it was they next day when I heard distant singing. I listened carefully; it is actually easier to hear in total darkness. I realized many people were singing Freedom Songs! The lights came on. The harassment stopped. Hundreds of young people had gathered outside in protest and begun singing. I was later told that the Sheriff was startled to find such a major reaction and that arresting hundreds of young people only enraged their families and aroused them to action rather than cowing them into submission as he expected.
I was allowed to make a phone call and called a cousin of my mother’s, Toby Simon, who was then head of the Florida Civil Liberties Union. Attorney John Due was to succeed him in that position some years later. Toby asked a courageous Afro-Latino lawyer from Ybor City in Tampa, Francisco Rodriguez, to come to Ocala. He eventually got to come in, but not to take pictures. After a couple of weeks, I was required to be examined by a psychologist – a tactic commonly used to demean anyone challenging the power structure -- and then taken before a judge and ordered released. With some discomfort he promised a copy of the psychologist’s report, saying it was something few people could brag of; a certification of their mental health – as if that somehow ended the question of illegal arrest, brutal beating, and so forth. As expected, the promised copy of the report never came. Nor, as usual, did even an apology, much less compensation or prosecution of those who carried out this and other kidnappings under cover of law.
After recuperating for a week with the kindness of Frank Rodriguez and his family in Ybor City and in the home of the leader of the Jewish congregation in the University of Florida city of Gainesville, I returned to Ocala (there may have been other stops) where a mass meeting of hundreds of people dramatically expanding the local civil rights movement showed there was a gain for the pain. The oppressive administration had been diverted by the incident, allowing room for local organizers. That movement eliminated the gross segregation of ‘white’ and ‘colored’ signs and segregation on buses and public places. Unfortunately, reports are that Ocala remains a place of rule by fear and abuse of legal process to this day.
In Tallahassee, somewhere in this process, someone called me out of the Due’s apartment to announce the assassination of the courageous Mississippi freedom fighter, Medgar Evers, whom I knew from the Freedom Rides. Many less well-known people were also suffering far worse than I!
I was called back to Americus to face the wave of arrests going on. It was in that context that leaders of the Sumter County Movement decided that the day’s mass meeting would discuss what to do next, but not include a demonstration. When a young activist got up and angrily called on others to follow him to pray in front the city hall, and scores of young people followed, I was asked to walk along as a non-participant observer. The young people were courageous. They sang and prayed. When police stopped them, blocking their way, while clubbing and jabbing witnesses with cattle prods, the young civil rights demonstrators knelt and prayed.
The young people were forced into trucks and taken away. As the large crowd began to disperse, many heading back toward the church, I too walked away. A little over a block away, I heard my named being shouted. I looked and saw a young cop yelling and brandishing his pistol. I know nothing about guns, but realized I could easily ignore him and walk away, as the chance of his being able to hit me at that distance was nil and there were structures I could easily move behind. I also realized, however, that he probably didn’t care, and would use the excuse to shoot into the crowd and would inevitably hit people. I raised my hands and walked back to him. I asked what this was about, This young man, whose lawyer explained that he used a racist epithet because he had little schooling, replied that I was charged with ‘attempting to incite insurrection against the State of Georgia – a statute which hadn’t been invoked since the US Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional before I was born and even longer before he was born!
I was pushed into a squad car, taken to the county jail and thrown into the white drunk tank by a different policeman whom my fellow prisoners called ‘Big Andy’, with the invitation ‘Here’s a Freedom Rider for you!’ -- like throwing herring to seals!
People forget today, with advocates of the oppression of the Roman centurions claiming the mantle of Fundamentalist Christianity, that there were many in the movement then, including Dr. King, John Lewis, James Farmer, Clarence Jordan and many other people who really tried to implement the fundamental principles of the original Christian movement. There were Catholics, Protestants, Moslems and Jews like me in the Movement, religious and secular, as well as others, who stood for the best in their faiths and in their humanity. There is a great need to help those today who have been misled to see not only their faiths, but also reality, in a twisted way!
The existence of our republic, of the ideals of our Declaration of Independence, of our religions and world views and of the very existence of life on earth are now in doubt. It is clear that we can work hard to build the Beloved Community with freedom, material needs and respect for all; or sit back and watch the country and the planet destroyed by the party of greed, by the terrorism our nation’s leaders now mistakenly promote as the tool to amass monetary wealth to establish the manhood they feel lacking because they have been raised to see these golden idols as the indicators of success in life.
As the atheist agitator of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, propounded in his Crisis Papers, each of us must find his road to insurrection.