You couldn’t blame the passersby for their extended stares and double takes. It must have seemed a strange scene: a black Baptist minister leading a crowd of Jews and a smattering of African Americans in the singing of “We Shall Overcome” on an Upper West Side street corner, yarmulkes flying every which way in the chilly autumn wind.
There was, of course, an explanation. Members of the two communities had come together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. They were abducted in 1964 on the first day of “Freedom Summer,” an initiative to integrate Mississippi’s segregated political system and bring national attention to the indefensible treatment of the state’s black population. The bodies of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, the first an African American, the others Jews from New York, were found 44 days later.
Both the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 were passed in large part because of the well-publicized events of that summer.
The gathering, held Sunday, was not only an opportunity to honor the ultimate sacrifice of the victims, but also to serve as a reminder that their work is not yet done. Standing in Freedom Place, a four-block stretch in Manhattan dedicated to the memory of the three, the Rev. Jacques DeGraff of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem challenged the unlikely assembly to take further action to curb racism and bigotry.
“The question for each of us is, what are you doing today that will make a difference 50 years from now?”
Before the ceremonial visit to Freedom Place, the program kicked off at Lincoln Square Synagogue with a short video documenting the Freedom Summer. Several elected officials were present, including Reps. Charles B. Rangel and Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Upper West Side Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal.
But it was Rev. DeGraff, a contributor on Fox News and a speaker at the rally in Midtown Manhattan to support Israel during this summer’s Gaza war, who energized the room. As he took to the podium he frowned after his “Good afternoon” was met with silence.
“When a Baptist preacher says something like that he expects a response,” he said. “Good afternoon!” This time, to his satisfaction, the entire congregation loudly returned his salutation.
He noted that it was fitting to hold the event in a synagogue.
“When we celebrate freedom it’s appropriate that we’re in this place, because this community particularly knows the horrors, because you’ve been through Kristallnacht, you know about nightmares, you know about terrorism, state sponsored.”
Also in attendance were the victims’ siblings, the Rev. Julia Chaney Moss, Steven Schwerner and David Goodman. Each spoke briefly, recalling stories of their respective brothers and lamenting the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down much of the Voting Rights Act, allowing states to change voting laws without securing federal approval. Critics of the change fear that states will enact tougher voter identification standards in an effort to suppress minority voters for political purposes.
“We have a Supreme Court that decided that we’ve made enough progress. There are no more problems. There’s no more prejudice,” said Nadler. “Whether that’s naïve or deceitful I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”
Stooped but still dapper in a grey, pinstriped suit and multi-colored tie, elder statesman Rangel urged the members of the audience to stand up to racism in everyday life as a tribute to the slain civil rights workers.
“When you think of these young people who actually lost their lives because of what they believed in, then maybe it’s not asking too much of us to be able to speak out when we hear bigotry and anti-Semitism,” said the 84-year-old Rangel, who has served in Congress since 1971.
The event was organized by Lincoln Square Synagogue and co-sponsored by the Canaan Baptist Church, West End Synagogue, The Jewish Week and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York. Michael S. Miller, the executive vice president and CEO of JCRC New York, introduced each speaker.
Bernard J. Kabak, who chaired the event, referenced a comment Chaney made to his mother to explain his participation in the Freedom Summer campaign: “This is not for me and this is not for you; this is for everyone.”
“In uttering those words, James did not know the unspeakable fate that awaited him,” Kabak said. “There is something else he did not know. He did not know how encompassing the ‘everyone’ whose freedom he was fighting for would turn out to be.”
Prior to the procession to Freedom Place where, to symbolize the importance of the next generation taking up the cause, 9-year-old Joseph Savenor would read aloud a plaque memorializing the deaths of the freedom fighters, Lincoln Square Synagogue’s Rabbi Shaul Robinson described the significance of 50 years in the Jewish tradition. During Biblical times, he said, the Jewish nation sanctified the yovel, the Hebrew term for jubilee, at the end of each 50-year cycle.
“In the yovel year … you blow the shofar, you blow the ram’s horn, and the Torah tells us ‘You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants,’” said Rabbi Robinson. “Let us remember 50 years after this tragedy, after the inspirational Freedom Summer of 1964. It’s time again to sound the shofar, to sound the ram’s horn, and to proclaim liberty throughout the land.”