September 11, 2013

Marvin in Mississippi

Marvin Braiterman, 39, landed in Jackson Miss. Airport July 2, 1964 – 50 years ago.(that airport is now named after Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi NAACP, who was shot in the back in his front yard. In 1963.)

He was chair of the Maryland Civil Liberties Union, a founder of Temple Emanuel in Baltimore, who believed the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should have been part of the 10 Commandments. But he was not consulted about that.

That was his passion, but it did not pay any money. To support his wife and three children, he needed a job. He took personal injury and other cat-and dog-cases he had to settle or win to make a living. He hated that work. He hated his job.

His brother and former law partner Sheldon Braiterman once told his son Andrew that Marvin “didn’t want to work.” For Sheldon, work was all about making money. He did not understand his brother, who was concerned more about justice, and using the law to create a just society. They had a stormy partnership that was dissolved in 1963-4. Dissolving the partnership had taken a year of bitter fighting.

As separate one-person law offices, Sheldon made a lot of money, and Marvin barely eked out a living, but made enough to send his three children to Oberlin College and Brandeis, both top-flight, very expensive schools. In those days, four years of tuition, room and board at a top university cost $10,000.

People couldn’t believe the two grew up in the same household during the same Depression.

Marvin always tried to be what he called “an active participant in history.” The highlights of his life before 1964 included integrating the public swimming pool in Cambridge, Maryland, and volunteering to help liberate the German concentration camp outside Bergen-Belsen. He spoke enough Yiddish back then to be an interpreter for the British liberators and the Yiddish speaking Jews who got through the war, and avoided the gas chambers and ovens that made those camps infamous. Marvin spoke often to his oldest son Ken about the bodies “stacked up like cordwood.”

He also talked about the smell that pervaded the entire region as well as the camp itself. “There was no way the people in the city could not have known that this smell was mass murder,” he told his son many times. He would not buy a Volkswagen, but when Ken expressed the same anti-German feeling, Marvin told his son that German guilt did not extend to the next generation.

He did not believe in “hereditary guilt.” The children were not responsible for the sins of their fathers, who were alive and aware when Hitler came to power and committed his unspeakable crimes.

That same drive to be an active participant in history put Marvin on that plane to Jackson in 1964, and again in 1965. He had to be with, and help protect, the people who were being oppressed by Jim Crow laws, and special “race laws” adopted by the Mississippi Legislature to intimidate and punish “outside agitators” and “nigger lovers” who were organizing up north to invade their state, and the impose integration and “race mixing.” Those outside agitators did not understand the Mississippi way of life. Thanks to segregation, they had peace between the races, prevented race mixing and interracial marriage (which they called “mongrelization” of the races.)

It also left white folks comfortably on top and in control of society down there. Negroes, as they were called in polite society, liked it better as well, white Southerners thought. If they did not like it, they could move up north or go back to Africa.

Now the do-gooders up north had the President of the United States, the federal courts, and almost two-thirds of Congress behind them. Southern bigots could no longer bottle up a civil rights laws in the House Rules Committee, or filibuster it to death in the U.S. Senate. (In those days, it took two-thirds of the Senators to cut off debate and bring a bill to the floor. That’s seven more votes than you need today.) Bringing a bill to the House Floor for a vote required a “Removal Petition” signed by most Congress people to remove it from the Judiciary Committee.

The Rules Committee was the private domain of Rep. Howard Smith, D Virginia, a fanatic segregationist. He had the power to prevent any bill from going to the floor of the House, and he used that power to bottle up civil rights bills. Renegade Congress people who tried to remove a civil rights bill would have their own bills bottled up, so they went along with the chairman.

This was largely unknown outside the Capitol until CBS News aired a one-hour interview with correspondent Howard K Smith (no relation) titled Keeper of the Rules, which was the first glimpse for most Americans of that odd glitch in the legislative process.

Congressman Smith was a hard-core segregationist who did not care about the large number of people who thought he used his power as Rules Committee chairman to block civil rights laws, keep them from reaching the House floor for a vote. He had been doing it for years. Committee chairs in those days could refuse to act on a bill and let it die in committee.

Committee chairs can’t do that so easily anymore, a “Howard Smith Memorial rule.” He knew he was out of step with most of the country, but he didn’t care. His constitutents in Virginia always re-elected him. Most Southern conservatives held “safe seats” like Smith, and acquired seniority and leadership positions. On a special CBS news report, correspondent Howard K. Smith asked Congressman Smith how he felt the widespread belief that he used his power in the committee to prevent civil rights laws from reaching the House floor for a vote. Smith made no gesture in response. He puffed on his pipe and said, “I’d say that’s a fair criticism.” In framing the question, Correspondent Smith disclosed that he was a native of Louisiana, who lived in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, and knew firsthand the economic and cultural drag segregation put on society in the South. He said he was in favor of the 1964 civil rights bill.

President Lyndon Johnson, when he became president in 1963 after Kennedy was shot, said practically the day he took office that a comprehensive civil rights bill would be his first priority in memory of Pres. John Kennedy, and it would be signed by a Southerner from Texas. Johnson as Senate majority leader until 1961 had been the greatest legislative technician since Henry Clay before the Civil War. Few senators could resist the legendary one-on-one “Johnson treatment.” When he could not get what he wanted by trading something within the power of the majority leader, he would get in your face, poke your body with his finger, surround you, call you at home at all hours, and press your flesh until you gave in.

Now the Johnson treatment would be working for a law that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race. He could make it stick because nearly one-third of the members of the House and Senate were carried into Washington in the Johnson landslide win in the 1964 election. Congress could no longer be counted on to stop civil rights laws.

Southern law enforcement was segregation’s last line of defense. Mississippi’s “race laws” were additional tools it could use to break the movement. People could be locked up overnight for crimes like jaywalking, loitering, trespassing, speeding, or disturbing the peace. To anyone connected with the civil rights movement, a night in a Mississippi jail put black activists and civil rights workers at the mercy of Southern law enforcement overnight. They could be beaten and brutalized before they could be brought to court and arraigned.

The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of civil rights groups from Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the younger more radical SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) formed a coalition so they could speak with one voice. COFO was SCLC’s biggest client. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was the oldest, most established organization. For years their national president and biggest fund raiser was a Jewish lumber baron from Boston named Kivie Kaplan, Marvin’s mentor. Before Marvin went south Kivie told Marvin “Never let them forget you are there because you are Jewish.” Kivie also believed that the First Amendment should have been included in the Ten Commandments. Marvin adored Kivie Kaplan.

Marvin’s plane arrived in Jackson two hours late, plus one hour for the time change. He was not tired despite the long, uncomfortable flight. He looked forward to getting there with a kind of anticipation.

Lowell Johnston, a law clerk from the office, met him at the airport. “He was a tall handsome kid from Harvard Law School, who looked like Harry Belafonte, and who was a pleasant young man.”

Their first stop was the LCDC office. There, he met the other law students and two of the lawyers he would be replacing. They gave him ample advice and suggestions on how to handle things. They explained the operation of the program in detail. They began to describe some of the cases and matters that would carry over for Marvin to take up while he was there. Through the afternoon, the other new lawyers arrived. They had five lawyers (one more than the Montgomery office, where things were quiet).

His predecessors’ experience was that there was some harassment and discomfort, some tough problems in dealing with COFO activists, their clients, and working in a police state. But the full impact did not strike them until they lived there for two weeks, when three civil rights workers went missing on a dark road near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Their names were Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Earl Chaney, two white Jews from New York, and one young black man from Mississippi.

The incident had a “chastening effect.” “Civil rights workers and the local “Negro” community became much more careful and restrained in their methods and objections as a result of this incident,” Marvin said in a July 4 letter to his wife, Thea, back in Baltimore. LCDC lawyers always wore suits and ties buttoned up to the collar like Federal officers from Washington. They did not travel at night or on back roads. They checked in by phone frequently during the day, and if they missed a check-in the office would react.

“Philadelphia plus the general police brutality left the young activists with little disposition to do much more than education and voter registration drives – which required monumental effort. The police and other violent racists are more careful to be covert in their brutality,” he continued, “to avoid violence in the streets, etc. The lawyers had much interference, some harassment and embarrassment, but nothing more serious,” Marvin said.

The bulk of Marvin’s caseload was removing traffic violations and other misdemeanors from the local court to the federal court. In federal court, civil rights workers could get bail and a fair trial. After he got home from Mississippi, he wrote an article called “Harold and the Highwayman” about a typical civil rights worker getting a typical speeding ticket. The lawyer had to run and file a removal petition before night fell to get him out of jail, and then he and his client had to show up in court for trial.

Trial was held in the judge’s garage at his home. The judge gave the northern lawyer a welcome and permission to appear in his court. Harold stood away from them, and looked like he was suspicious that his lawyer, Marvin, was selling him out. Harold did not know that it was common – much more common than now – for lawyers and judges to get acquainted before becoming adversaries inside the Bar of Justice.

This judge was particularly, it seemed to Marvin, eager to let the northern lawyer know that he was glad to have Marvin in his court, and that Negroes and civil rights workers could get a fair trial from him. Harold was acquitted and never spent a night in jail. He was charged court costs. For a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964 that was a win, Marvin explained. The judge had to give something to the local police. He could not embarrass them completely.

The following summer, he got two black men acquitted of raping a white woman. Under the Escobedo case, the confession had been illegally obtained by the police. Without the confession there was no other evidence. The case had to be dismissed. The judge said the confession was inadmissible because of the Escobedo case decided by that Supreme Court. Marvin was delighted with the outcome and the look on the policemen’s faces when the case was thrown out. “They looked stricken,” Marvin said.

Marvin’s other caseload in 1964 included desegregating park benches and public libraries. He had already won a segregation case in Maryland, when the Cambridge volunteer fire department made the public swimming pool a “private club.“ Any white person could pay two dollars to join the club; black people could not join. They could swim in the Choptank River with all the agricultural runoff. In cross examining the volunteer firemen, he reduced their argument that it was a private club to the absurdity it was. Segregated public libraries and park benches in Mississippi were about as ridiculous as the ones in Maryland.

The highlight of Marvin’s first summer in Mississippi was that someone at a meeting asked him to come up to his church in the Delta and tell the story of Passover to the Sunday school class. “The town was not really a town, just some tarpaper shacks nailed together where two dirt roads crossed in the cotton fields.”

Marvin told Ken that it was too hot to meet in the church, so they met outside in the bulrushes where there was some shade. The Sunday School class was really the entire congregation. “The Reverend introduced me as one of the Hebrew children whose ancestors were redeemed from slavery in Egypt.”

“I just told them the story of Passover the way my father told it to me at his Seder, the way I told it to my children at mine. I talked about the four cups of wine that reminds us of the joy of freedom, the bitter herbs that remind us of the bitterness and tears of slavery, and the matzoh that reminds us the Jews did not waste any time when they were allowed to leave Egypt. They did not even have time to let their bread rise.

“At one point, I looked up and found the congregation cheering and shouting “Amen” and “Hallellujah” like I was a charismatic preacher. If a religious experience includes seeing something you’ve always known in a completely new way, that was the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience,” Marvin said.

Marvin also reached out to the Jewish community in Jackson, and wrote an article about that, called “Mississippi Muranos.” Many Mississippi Jews told him they try and try and try to deal with segregation as best they can. We know it’s wrong, several said. They do not make their maids use the back door. “That’s what front doors are for.” Many members of the congregation are members of the White Citizens Council, “a moderate wing of the Ku Klux Klan.” They did not wear sheets but they could put a Jewish merchant out of business with an economic boycott.

Marvin looked for a name for these secret frightened Jews. He used the same name Murano that the secret Jews in the Spanish Inquisition used to describe themselves. He felt sorry for them because they lived in fear, but not that sorry because the activists and civil work rights workers he worked with were risking their lives every day. Local people who had a sense of right and wrong but kept quiet were accessories to the crime. He did not go back to the Temple in Jackson after that. He had a Union Prayer Book with him and decided not to pray secretly in his room.

“I am not a Murano” he said.

1 Comment for this entry

  • Ken!Brait1 says:

    Hi Suzanne,
    i did not expect you to drop in, but it is wonderful to hear from you this way. your positive attitude is infectious. When i was 60, i gave myself a birthday party. the premise was, that i shouldn’t wait for my funeral to hear all the nice things people would say about me that i would not enjoy because it was my funeral. so at 60 i instructed my guests to bring something with them that tipified are relationship. my sister in-law Lisa had the privilege of reading one or two of your insperational messages. Last Thursday (the Jewish New Year) i read three sentences of Torah the fact that i got there at all inspired people. They brought the scroll down to me because there was not enough room between the rows for my wheelchair, which is 30 in wide and self propelled. my chanting in a big clear voice also inspired people. Last year i chanted the same three sentences and stumbled. This year i made it all threw without stumbling at all. My sister, who is a Rabbi’s wife, ran through it with me a few times with me the day before. For the first time, i read it without stumbling and knocked it out if the park the next morning. My voice is on its way out, but it came back long enough, and at the right time. until Sunday morning when my friend dropped in to see me did i realize that i was so inspiring. I’ll bet this is the first time anyone told you that “your story” (and your husband’s) inspired me.
    Goes to show that you never know what effect you have on people. When you set out to inspire you end up standing on a landmine. Its a self-defeating goal except when its an unintended consequence of something you do well for its own sake. Stay Well

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