Can the courage and creativity of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964 inspire and direct us to transform the world into a more just, nonviolent, and healthy place 50 years later? There is certainly that potential.
I spent several days two weeks ago in Mississippi:
Celebrating a Mississippi that today is very different;
Facing the truth that Earth and human communities — especially, still, those of color and of poverty — are being deeply wounded by the carbon pharaohs’ exploitation and oppression;
Talking and working toward a future of joyful community in which Mother Earth and her human children can live in peace with each other in the embrace of One Breath.
And then, a few days later, came the news of the murders of three young men just weeks prior — three Israeli youngsters, their bodies, like those of Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, and James Earl Chaney, hidden while the search went forward for them.
But not only them. The violent deaths of young Palestinian boys and men as well, during the Israeli Army crackdown on the West Bank. Their mothers also mourning. As the New York Times reported the day before the three Israeli bodies were discovered:
“Most Israelis see the missing teenagers as innocent civilians captured on their way home from school, and the Palestinians who were killed as having provoked soldiers. Palestinians, though, see the very act of attending yeshiva in a West Bank settlement as provocation, and complain that the crackdown is collective punishment against a people under illegal occupation.”
Is there a danger of moral relativism in mentioning these deaths together? Is the cold-blooded murder of three hitchhiking youngsters morally equivalent to killings carried out by angry, frightened soldiers faced with a protesting mob?
At the individual level, no.
But at the level of public policy, there is also no moral equivalence between a cold-blooded military occupation and the impotent rage of the occupied.
Above all, there is no “relativism” in the tears of mothers.
The better response to injustice
Some Israelis and some Palestinians have joined their sorrow over the killings of their own children to work in the circle of bereaved families for a peace that would end the killing.
Others — including some Israeli cabinet ministers — have defined their deaths as the warrant for more killing.
But Mississippi did not change through threats like that. It changed because an aroused American citizenry from outside of Mississippi allied itself with the oppressed community inside Mississippi to demand — through nonviolent direct action and through passing laws — that an oppressed population of black folk be freed to achieve some measure of political power.
As a result of that arousal, the deaths 50 years ago have made a visible difference. Fifty years ago, a scant few black Mississippians had been allowed to register to vote. As the “Freedom Summer + 50” gathering opened last month, thousands of black Mississippians who are devoted to the Democratic Party intervened in a Republican primary to prevent the nomination and for-sure election of a far-right Tea Party candidate.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no sufficiently powerful outside energy has made the commitment to bring all of its lawful, nonviolent power to bear to achieve a two-state peace. So the violence worsens in a downward spiral of injustice.
We can make it better
What the gathering in Mississippi showed was that, even when change is still necessary, even when injustice continues, there can be an upward spiral, growing from past transformations into future ones.
The gathering at Tougaloo College addressed the future as much as the past. The memory of youthful deaths so many years ago — we recited their names, we sang their songs, we welcomed their families — became the celebration of youthful courage that had led to serious change. So not only were many veterans of 1964 there, but also many, many young activists, come to learn and be inspired.
So we addressed the injustices that persist, and we took up some levels of injustice that 50 years ago were not on anyone’s agenda. Even Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, did not envision a massive disruption of the planetary climate system and the web of life it has nurtured for millions of years.
So there was a confluence of issues almost unimaginable in 1964 when Jacqueline Patterson of the NAACP staff brought together for two excellent workshops on “climate justice.” They were the first climate-action settings I have ever seen in which people of color — black and Hispanic and Asian and native — were at least half of those present.
Many spoke of two clear cases in their own region when the fossil-fuel pharaohs had shattered the lives of poor communities of color even worse than they had damaged those of prosperous whites:
How Hurricane Katrina (which was greatly worsened by the oil rigs that chopped up marshy wetlands that used to absorb much of the energy of hurricanes when they hit land) had most damaged the poor folk who were living closer to the river (because houses were cheaper there).
And how poor folk also were the slowest and still the least served by relief and reconstruction efforts after the BP Oil blow-out in the Gulf.
And we learned as well how on a global level the overheating of our planet was hurting and killing the poor even worse than others: How droughts in California, the U.S. corn-belt, central Africa, and Russia had raised the price of staple foods so badly that those who were teetering on the edge of poverty fell into hunger, and those who had been hungry faced starvation. And some who were starving fought civil wars to get their hands on food.
A new kind of ‘Freedom School’
We discussed alternatives for climate activism. Some of us talked about the model of the Freedom Schools that emerged in 1964, where the impulses to learn and teach were deeply interwoven with the impulse to heal the world. Those freedom schools helped give birth to the teach-ins against the Vietnam War that flowered in the spring of ’65.
Could we create new freedom schools, new teach-ins, to fuse the science of climate and the facts of corporate carbon domination with the strategies of change? Was our gathering itself a kind of freedom school, a teach-in, with the young and the old teaching each other?
And Freedom Summer inspired co-ops, the redirection of our money from feeding bloated corporate power to nourishing the seeds of a grass-roots economic democracy. In that spirit, I shared The Shalom Center’s campaign to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP) and handed out copies of our “Action Handbook” on specific steps for how to move our money.
All of us learned more deeply how important it is to recognize and act on the true linkage of what we might call “eco-social justice.”
And we learned that what happened 50 years ago in Mississippi sowed the seeds of our ability to recognize and resist new depredations of today. We saw how deeply the nonviolent movement of 50 years before had, even when some of its activists were killed, given continuing birth to nonviolent responses to make more necessary change.
I ended one of those workshops by invoking the spirit of Vincent Harding. If he had not died just a month ago, I said, he would have been deeply pleased by our intergenerational learning, and he would have brought his own deep listening and the quiet with which he surrounded his own wise words.
And most of all, he would have brought his willingness to invest his life in the effort to use nonviolence to expand democracy, to win justice for those who have been oppressed.
And now, in the wake of the news from Palestine and Israel, his ghostly, powerful presence actually reminds me of the unity of that long effort. Just two summers ago, Brother Vincent took part in a delegation of American Jews and blacks to visit the occupied West Bank and bring hope to Palestinians committed to nonviolence.
Brother Vincent would have wept over the deaths of the young men of both peoples. As do I.
May the tears we shed become the wellsprings not of revenge but of transformation — as they did in Mississippi.
And may we teach the intertwinement of eco-social justice, learning anew from Freedom Summer’s creativity to go beyond our forebears — as they did.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., is director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia and author of “Seasons of Our Joy” (Jewish Publ Soc, 2012) and “Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia,” co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011).