1965 was different from 1964 in several important ways. It was less violent, and the movements focus had switched from integrating public accommodations to registering voters. Many of the most oppressive districts in Mississippi had a majority of black voters – who never voted because of local intimidation.
It was risky – very risky – for a rural black person to register to vote. It was slightly less risky for a black person to register in a more populated neighborhood.
But person-to-person violence was less evident.
Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from greater Detroit, was murdered driving food to the people marching from Selma Alabama to Montgomery. 1965 was the year Marvin was kidnapped by four armed Ku Klux Klans men. He was driving back to Jackson from a meeting with some black people way up in the Mississippi Delta. He stopped at a crossroads to look at a roadmap and four men with guns got into the car.
They wanted to know what Marvin was doing with the “Niggers “in town. Marvin was in uniform. Only lawyers and federal agents wore suits and ties buttoned up to the collar in the oppressive Mississippi summer. Marvin let the men believe that he was one of “Bobby Kennedy’s boys” from the Justice Department. If one of those boys got hurt, there would be hell to pay.
So in his “protective coloration,” he allowed them to believe it.
Three guys got into his car- one in front, two in the backseat – while the fourth guy followed behind in their truck. They kept asking what he had been doing with the “niggers” in town until they got the message that he wouldn’t tell them. Then the guy in the front seat noticed Marvin’s briefcase on the floor board. When he reached for it, with great authority Marvin said, “ DON’T TOUCH THAT.”
Marvin paid no attention to popular movies, but Dr. No with James Bond was circulating in theaters that summer. One of the men in the back called to his buddy up front and said he’d seen a movie where a suitcase like that could blow up if you tried to open it or even touched it the wrong way. So the briefcase remained on the floor untouched.
He drove around the back roads of Mississippi for 45 minutes. At one point, one of the guys in the backseat decided Marvin didn’t believe the guns were loaded. So they fired some rounds into a cotton field to add to the drama and intimidation. Marvin was unmoved. Later, he told Ken that when you’re in that kind of danger for a while, you sort of get used to it. By the time they proved the guns were loaded he had settled into the new status quo of being held at gunpoint. The one thing he mentioned about this shooting was the sound of the guns, how loud it was.
The Associated Press picked up the story, which was picked up by the Baltimore Sun. Channel 13, owned by Westinghouse, invited him to talk about it on their evening news. The first thing he said on TV was that what happened to him was “atypical” in 1965. It was more common in 64.
He also went back on John Sterling’s radio program, and the bigots got hold of the phones and bawled him out for mixing in other people’s business. One caller said, “They’re making their living. How are they bothering you?”
He got his only piece of hate mail, typed on an IBM Selectric, an expensive typewriter, popular among lawyers. You could change the typeface by taking out a ball and replacing it- easier then changing a light bulb. The letter accused Marvin of “trying to get the nigger business”.
Marvin said he knew who wrote it but never told anybody. He did not have enough evidence, and he did not want to escalate the feud. He was satisfied that he knew who wrote it.
After the 1965 summer, Marvin closed his law office and took a job as Washington representative for the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Richard Hirsch handled Israel and Soviet Jewry and Marvin handled everything else: civil rights, anti-Vietnam, church and state, and poverty – the whole American liberal (New Deal) agenda.
One by one, national Jewish organizations dropped out of the civil rights coalition. Friction grew between the black and Jewish communities as angry young voices made anti-Semitic headlines. More and more, Marvin was the only Jew at the meetings, and he had less and less support from his own national organization. Under Marvin’s influence, the URJ remains in the civil rights coalition to this day.
Marvin kept the URJ on the liberal side of “affirmative action,” the most divisive issue that arose between blacks and Jews in the late 60’s.
Jews feared that blacks would be preferred over them in hiring and college admissions. It was a good excuse for northern liberal Jews to be racist. Many Jews believed affirmative action was the same as a quota. In Eastern Europe, quotas were used to limit Jewish access to higher education. A school would admit three percent or less Jewish students.
In higher education in the United States, Jews were a privileged class: the number of Jews in colleges, law school, and medical school was much higher than their percentage in the general population. If anything, affirmative action would be needed in the plumbers union, electricians union, and other trades. But not many Jews wanted to join those unions. In higher education, affirmative action meant that, if you had three hundred excellent students and one hundred seats in the class, the admissions office would give preferential treatment to women and minorities. (There is no such thing as “more excellent.”) The URJ was as divided over affirmative action as other national Jewish organizations, but Marvin explained to them the difference between quotas, which were bad, and affirmative action, which was good for minorities and the professions, and the country.
In 1970, the natural alliance between Negros and Jews came to an end in a vicious teacher strike in New York City. The blacks wanted more black teachers and principals, and the teachers union, which was overwhelmingly white and Jewish, dug in their heels to insist on absolute seniority. An overwhelming majority of the city’s teachers had seniority over new hires from the black community. Union leader, Albert Shanker called the system he was defending, “merit”, as if holding a job for a while gave you merit while being excluded from the same job meant you had no merit. So the two sides talked past each other for the opening weeks of the school year. After that the pattern kept repeating in hiring policies up north.
Richard Nixon’s first Vietnam speech in 1969 said he was not changing Johnsons divisive Vietnam policy. The term he used was Vietnamization, meaning the United States would gradually withdraw its ground troops, but continue to bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age. By then, the organized Jewish community had pretty much withdrawn from the liberal coalition.
Marvin attended a meeting after Nixon’s speech with the presidents of national Jewish organizations. Most of these individuals were American liberals with children in college. They had a “generation gap” in their own homes as well as in the media. The people at the meeting, who had American college students in their families wondered what to tell their college aged children, especially when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir wrote a letter praising Nixon for his courageous stance on Vietnam.
They figured that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had to send the letter praising the speech. But there was another possibility they had not thought of. Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin told the presidents of the main stream organizations that their new friends were right wingers in congress and fundamentalist Christian preachers. Their old friends in the liberal coalition-The National Council of Churches, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the NAACP, the AFL-CIO and the peace movement were indifferent or hostile to Israel. Most of the American Jewish organizations fell in line.
Marvin left his job as Washington representative of the URJ and took a job teaching at New England College in New Hampshire- a job he loved until he died in 2004. His wife Thea also taught at the same college until they both retired as beloved professors.
Marvin told Ken he was tired of being the only Jew at all of the meetings. And in 1973 it looked like Nixon could rule by decree with only one-third of one house behind him. It was not until the end of 1973 that Nixon started to be
crippled by Watergate.
Marvin ran for NH State Legislature in 1980, and was blown away in the Reagan landslide. Thea ran and won the seat in 19–. People respected Marvin but adored Thea. Thea served three 2-year terms. They both served several years as town selectman in Henniker NH. During Marvin’s time as Selectman, he and Leigh Bosse of Hillsborough, set aside their political differences on everything, and led the oppositions to the Federal Government’s effort to build a nuclear waste dump under the two towns.
Again, Marvin was an active participant in history.
After the nuclear stare-down with the federal government, Marvin began to decline and he died in 2004 at the age of 79. Thea, now 85, suffering with Alzheimer’s lives with her son David in Concord NH. In 2013, Ken was diagnosed with Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS often called Lou Gehrig’s disease). He lives in a nursing home in Concord.
Ken began writing this story at Harris Hill nursing home in Concord with the help of Concord Regional VNA hospice volunteers, Betty Williams and –, volunteers from Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, and dear friend Shirlee Smith.
Ken wrote his father’s story because many young people who don’t remember 1964 and 1965 are fascinated by how different it was from what they know now. They are fascinated by these old stories from 50 years. With the 50th anniversary upon us, he hopes there will be some interest in what has been and increasingly forgotten chapter in US history. He also wanted to pay tribute to his father’s willingness to be an active participant history.