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January 24, 2017 7:36 am

Brother of Slain Civil Rights Worker Warns Against Racism

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

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Stephen Schwerner with Rabbi Mark Wildes. Photo: Alan Zeitlin.

Stephen Schwerner with Rabbi Mark Wildes. Photo: Alan Zeitlin.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how is America doing when it comes to race relations? Only a 4, according to Stephen Schwerner, who recently spoke with Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience on the Upper West Side.

Schwerner’s brother, Michael, and fellow civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, were murdered in 1964 when they went to Mississippi to help register black voters. The case was the basis of the film Mississippi Burning, starring Gene Hackman.

The state of Mississippi — which enabled many acts of racial violence — did not file murder charges against the perpetrators. The murderers were, however, charged under federal civil rights laws. Some of the conspirators received sentences of three to 10 years, while others were acquitted.

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Wildes asked Scwherner if justice had been served.

“Justice would have been served if there were much more Federal involvement in the civil rights movement from the beginning,” said Schwerner, who added that the FBI is wrongly portrayed as a hero in the film — when J. Edgar Hoover hated the civil rights movement. The Ku Klux Klan marked his brother for death well before the murder, Scwherner said.

The 79-year-old also told the crowd that there is much work to be done regarding today’s racial climate.

“This is still a segregated country with a huge amount of racism,” he said.

He said that recent harmful rhetoric has given rise to the idea that “it’s ok to be racist again,” and that he was truly upset by recent attacks by Trump supporters against  Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.

“John is an icon,” Schwerner said, noting that Lewis was almost killed by the KKK, and was beaten mercilessly as he campaigned for civil rights.

So what of the Jewish role in the civil rights movement, and what is happening today? Schwerner said that there’s always been a thread of fighting for social justice in Jewish history, but he said that now there isn’t as strong a passion for it.

“I don’t find as many people who are Jewish thinking that discrimination against black folks is their problem as it used to be,” Schwerner said.

He said that there could be many reasons for this: Some civil rights groups have become critical of Israel; Jews are firmly in the middle class and don’t feel discriminated against; and that racism is sometimes more hidden today than it was in the 1960s.

Schwerner recalled a time when he protested with his brother on the Lower East Side.

“I would lock arms with people,” he said. “My brother was much more courageous; he would lie down in front of bulldozers.”

As for his brother’s decision to go to Mississippi in 1964, Schwerner said the dangers were evident.

“Anybody who went to Mississippi knew it was dangerous,” he said. “But there’s a lot of things that are important to do even if [they’re] dangerous.”

Wildes echoed Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who said that since Jews had been slaves, it was in our DNA to be sympathetic to anyone who is persecuted.

“We know that ‘charity begins at home,’ but it doesn’t end there,” Wildes said. “We’re sitting with a great hero whose brother gave his life for something that I believe is a Torah imperative.”

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  • Joseph Feld

    Very good article. It’s quite disappointing that the most recent film about Selma and Martin Luther King Junior leaves out the role of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, scion of a Hasidic dynasty and professor in JTS.

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