Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of

A trope I’ve recently seen repeated numerous times on Facebook is that American Jews are currently reliving the experience of German Jews in the 1930s. That idea is, in a word — or make that three words — simply not true.

But instead of repeating a slew of FB comments I made explaining the trope’s problems, I can’t do better than quote my friend Joanne Palmer, the Standard’s (and my) editor, who put that falsehood to bed two weeks ago in a sharp and elegant editorial:

“It would be facile and inaccurate to say that the United States in 2024 is the same as Germany in, say, 1938. We are not a rigid, authoritarian, hierarchical culture, obsessed with the purity of blood. We have some of those elements, true, coming at us from the right side of the political spectrum, as well as based-on-sand theories of intersectionality and colonialism and irradicable whiteness coming from the left, but it’s not the same. Aside from all the other differences, in this country, at this time — and for the foreseeable future – the police, as well as the military and other government agencies, are on our side.”

I’m raising this issue, however, not merely to repeat Joanne’s critique. Rather, I’d like to share some thoughts about this trope that came to mind recently as I read a book on a topic that might appear completely unrelated: “Walk With Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer” by Kate Clifford Larson.

If you don’t know who Fannie Lou Hamer is — and I wonder whether the majority of my readership does — do yourself a favor and learn her story. She was an important, inspiring, and intrepid civil rights leader in the 1960s. What I particularly remember was her attempt, at the 1964 Democratic convention, to have the multiracial delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party credentialed rather than the all-white delegation approved by the all-white regular Mississippi Democratic party. In doing so, she stood up to her state’s racist political leadership, as well as to President Lyndon Johnson. Though she lost that battle, her gripping testimony before the convention’s credentials committee, broadcast over national television, was a major and impactful news story.

That’s when I, a recent high school graduate, first heard of her, though I certainly didn’t appreciate back then either the importance of what she did or the courage it took. Therefore, when I recently saw her biography pop up on my audiobook app, I jumped at the chance to learn more of her story.

But what does the story of an important, though largely forgotten, civil rights leader from the 1960s have to do with a misleading trope about the Jewish living condition in 2024 America? What struck me as I read the book is that there was, in fact, a time that America was like 1930s Germany. But that time is not today, and the oppressed were not the Jews; it’s not always all about us.

This wasn’t the first time I thought that the African American experience in the United States had similarities to the Jewish experience in Germany in the 1930s, but the Hamer biography brought this point into sharper focus. It also highlighted that this isn’t ancient history. Rather, many incidents that support my sense took place in my lifetime, including her horrific 1963 beating and rape by never-punished Mississippi police officers — they were prosecuted in a sham federal trial in front of a racist judge and all-white jury, and as was the norm, promptly acquitted. That story reminded me of the great Phil Ochs song, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” whose chorus is the title of this column.

Let’s remember Joanne’s ending: “the police, as well as the military and other government agencies, are on our [Jewish] side [today].” True, but that can’t be said historically for the African American community. Southern police supported the lynchers and not the hundreds of people lynched; they arrested victims and not the lawbreakers; they used dogs, fire hoses, and billy clubs on non-violent protesters, including children; they severely beat African Americans for the “crimes” of demanding their constitutional rights, showing alleged disrespect to those who demeaned and dehumanized them, or simply for being Black. That, to me, sounds like Nazi Germany in the 1930s
And the vicious behavior of the police was emulated by the many white citizens, supported and protected by the authorities, who intimidated and bombed and murdered with impunity — just remember the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and the torture-murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, four well-known martyrs on a vastly longer list of unknown ones. That, to me, sounds like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

The Southern system of justice and legislation, including federal legislation, was not much better. African Americans did not receive fair trials, they were not judged by a panel of their peers since they were excluded from juries, many judges were biased against them, innocent African Americans were usually automatically convicted and guilty whites who perpetrated violence against them exonerated. Southern laws and regulations overtly discriminated against African Americans, and Congress was of little help — e.g., from 1882 to 1968 nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced but only three passed in the House, and there was zero enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment. Nor were the Justice Department or the FBI of much help; rather, they usually either sided with the perpetuators of discrimination and violence or closed their eyes to it. That, to me, sounds like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Ditto for the electoral system. In most Southern states African Americans were denied their constitutional right to vote both de facto and de jure, with violence and unfair laws like literacy tests, poll taxes, and all-white primaries barring their path to election booths. So they had no voice in the system that was oppressing them. That, to me, sounds like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Let’s look at education and other official and unofficial discrimination. African Americans were barred from good Southern schools and made to attend vastly inferior segregated ones (including for many years after Brown); they couldn’t go to or teach in most Southern universities. And this discrimination extended to swimming pools, water fountains, bathrooms, soda fountains and restaurants, hotels, medical care (unconsented-to sterilization of African American women in Mississippi was common), employment, the military, and others I’m probably forgetting. That, to me, sounds like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Indeed, America even had its very own Kristallnacht. In 1921, a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was completely destroyed by a white mob. As the New York Times reported a century later (a century!), a prosperous African American community had its workplaces, as well as the places where they lived, learned, shopped, played, and worshiped, erased in less than 24 hours, causing immense unreimbursed property loss and the deaths of hundreds of residents. I daresay that no one reading this column ever learned about that horrific day in school because, unlike Germany’s Kristallnacht, our American one was erased until only recently from official records, the media, and white, though not Black, memory. That, to me, sounds like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

But I could be wrong; perhaps I exaggerate. Maybe the African American experience in America, as horrendous as it was for at least 200 years, was not the equivalent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. But it was certainly worse than the sharp increase today in antisemitism and the protests and troubles on too many American campuses, as bad as that is. Thus, the trope expresses ignorance of history and current events while also adding to the fear and anxiety of the Jewish community.

It’s almost always a bad idea to make analogies to Nazi Germany. (See Godwin’s Law.) But if you must, make sure to be accurate about what happened there, what once happened here, and what’s happening here now. Make sure to be true to history, to current events, and to yourself.

* * *

A personal note. I like to make good on my promises, and it seems that one is still outstanding. In September, 2022, I wrote a column (“From the Sublime to the Sublime”) about a Koolulam event my wife and I attended, as well as two days I spent babysitting my delicious grandson Aiden. (Read or reread the column for the connection.) I promised then that I would post that event’s video when available. Last week, while experiencing another wonderful Koolulam evening at the Bergen PAC, I realized that I never posted the earlier video. So here’s the Promised link. Sorry for the delay.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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