Tevis on Ball, 'Taking the Fight South: Chronicle of a Jew's Battle for Civil Rights in Mississippi'

Author: 
Howard Ball
Reviewer: 
Britt P. Tevis

Howard Ball. Taking the Fight South: Chronicle of a Jew's Battle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021. 256 pp. $32.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-268-10916-5.

Reviewed by Britt P. Tevis (Indiana University Bloomington) Published on H-Judaic (January, 2022) Commissioned by Robin Buller (University of California - Berkeley)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57132

In Taking the Fight South: Chronicle of a Jew’s Battle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, Howard Bell recounts his family’s six-year stint living in Starkville, Mississippi. Bell, a political scientist who specializes in US constitutional law, his wife, and their three daughters moved from New York City to Starkville in 1976, when he accepted an academic post at Mississippi State University. They remained there until 1982. Taking the Fight South is a memoir about a Jewish family from New York trying to adjust to life in the postwar American South. The book is useful as a primary source for those interested in antisemitism and racism insofar as it documents one family's encounters with anti-Jewish animus during the late twentieth century, a time during which many historians have claimed that antisemitism rapidly declined, if not disappeared.

Taking the Fight South includes a preface and eight chapters. In the preface, Bell situates his personal trajectory within that of modern Jewish history. In his estimation, his experiences in Starkville represent the continuity of anti-Jewish hatred across space and time, as well as its self-evident unreasonableness. Chapter 1 recounts Bell’s father’s childhood journey to the United States from Poland and his own upbringing in New York City and Long Island. The chapter also illuminates Bell’s thinking for moving his family from New York City to Starkville. Once there, Bell almost immediately understood himself as an outsider because of his Jewishness, an aspect of his identity that he notes became more pronounced to outsiders and to himself after his move. Expressing his sense of communal alienation yet declining to probe the theoretical or historical meaning of his words, Bell states, “it felt to me like frontier Judaism” (p. 15).

Chapter 2 discusses Bell’s engagement with the Jewish community in Starkville and nearby areas. Leaving New York City made engagement with synagogue membership feel imperative and urgent. “I rapidly began studying Judaism’s core principles,” he recalls (p. 26). The Bells imported their bagels from Atlanta. As Bell reconnected with his religious traditions, non-Jews he encountered began to question his commitment. Bell’s office’s administrator, a “very devout Baptist woman,” informed him that she prayed for him and frequently left books and pamphlets about Jesus on his desk (p. 25). Bell also confronted some casual expressions of antisemitism. One of Bell’s students, while visiting Bell’s home, reported having “‘Jew’d [a] guy down’” (p. 48). In some instances, anti-Jewish sentiments proved more serious. Each year, the Bells met with the school principal to ensure that their daughters would be exempt from otherwise mandatory Christian Bible readings. When the Bells realized that a teacher had been punishing one of their daughters on account of her absence during these readings, they pushed to end Bible reading in the school entirely and recruited the Mississippi ACLU to assist them. The organization threatened to sue the school for violating Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and, in response, the school dropped the requirement, but only in his daughters’ classes. Soon after, the Bells’ circumstances grew more precarious. They received threatening phone messages from local Klansmen; these calls persisted even after the Bells changed their phone number and eventually became so common that the Bells quit reporting them to local police. Of all the chapters, this one most thoroughly addresses the nature and extent of anti-Jewish sentiment that the Bells encountered in Starkville.

Chapter 3 relays Bell’s experience as the lone Jewish member of the Northeast Mississippi High School Football Officials Association. Fellow officials referred to him as “the Rabbi” to his face. Behind his back, students called him “the Yankee referee” (p. 64). Despite his misgivings, he often refereed games held on Friday nights. Chapter 4 outlines Bell’s participation in the American Civil Liberties Union, especially his 1977 effort to deter local ACLU lawyers from defending members of the Ku Klux Klan. Chapter 5 concerns Bell’s involvement with monitoring the implementation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which also triggered expressions of anti-Jewish animus. This chapter stands out from the rest of the book insofar as it is largely legal analysis rather than personal reflections. In response to his congressional testimony and his public advocacy in favor of ensuring Black American’s voting rights, Bell received threatening letters, at least one of which included a picture of Adolf Hitler and declaration about the importance of national racial purity.

Bell received more hate mail in response to his efforts to introduce Black and women students to MSU’s graduate programs, a topic explored in chapter 6, “A Solitary Jew on Campus and in the Field.” Most of these letters were sent to the president of the university. Though some administrators protected Bell, as late as 1980s, others determined that other individuals’ Jewishness rendered them unemployable by MSU. The vice president for academic affairs, for example, found one Jewish job candidate undesirable because “he comes across just as what he is—a transplanted New Yorker.” Though the candidate was determined to be more experienced, the university determined he would be “negatively received by the public” (p. 157) and thus declined to hire him.

Bell left MSU in 1982, which he discusses in chapter 7. Bell attributes his move to his desire to be part of a larger Jewish community and one that wouldn’t snub him for his political activities as well as to the “unabated” night-time phone threats “from the Klan-types” (p. 159). In the book’s last chapter, a brief conclusion, Bell reflects on the highs and lows of his time in Starkville. From Mississippi, Bell and his family moved to Utah and then Vermont, where he took positions at the University of Utah and University of Vermont, respectively. Tellingly, Bell and his wife concluded that “our time in Mississippi, on the whole, was valuable … but we wouldn’t want to do it ever again!” (p. 19).

Taking the Fight South is also not an academic text. From the outset, Bell abandons standard scholarly conventions, frequently identifying himself with his Jewish readers by using the pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our” (pp. xv, xvii, xviii). The preface brims with platitudes that most Jewish historians consider neither accurate nor insightful. “Jew communities, throughout history, wherever my people have lived, have always been, and still remain, some of the most reviled, hated, and despised minority groups of religious ‘outsiders’” (p. xv), Bell begins, seemingly unaware of scholarly debates about the definition of antisemitism and whether, in fact, it constitutes “the longest hatred” (à la Robert Wistrich) or is a late-nineteenth century advent. Though he views antisemitism in the United States as a part of an “ageless” problem, he begins his discussion of the subject in 1924 with a mention of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act (p. xviii).

Importantly, Bell neglects to seriously address the very subject he says he cares about: race. The book does not offer a synthetic overview of racism or antisemitism in the United States or a history of Jews’ involvement in the civil rights movement. On the one hand, Bell is quick to note the perpetual inequalities faced by Black Americans. For example, underlining the irony of northern racism, he observes: “there were a greater percentage of Black students on this predominately white Southern campus than there were on Hofstra’s campus in New York” (p. 9). Yet Bell declines to grapple with Jews’ racial identity in Starkville in the postwar era. Instead, he repeatedly insists that Jews are white, a characterization that Bell neither defines nor acknowledges is a construct. In the book’s introduction, Bell asserts American Jews’ whiteness by citing a single article published on Chabad.com (p. xvi), ignoring scholarly literature on the subject, which shows that, indeed, Jews in the United States have been perceived as racially distinct and that Jews themselves have advanced this perception. Yet the episode in which Bell challenges required Bible readings in his daughter’s schools aptly illustrates Jews’ racial instability in Mississippi by revealing local Jews’ hyper concern over whiteness. Rather than support the Bells’ efforts to remove Bible readings from the public schools, the handful of other Jewish families in Starkville “chastised” them (p. 50). One Jewish elder angrily explained, “We like being white and invisible. It’s a safety device” (p. 50); the woman’s description of whiteness as a preference rather than a fact of existence underscores Starkville Jews’ racial insecurity.

Despite falling short of the standards of historical scholarship, this work has plenty to offer the interested reader, especially those interested in manifestations of anti-Jewish discrimination and bias in the postwar period. Scholars are given clues about unexplored research topics. For example, Bell notes that the New York City plumbers’ union barred his father from joining on account of his Jewishness, a dimension of employment discrimination that remains unstudied. Students can glean meaningful firsthand anecdotes about American Jewry in postwar America. Insofar as anti-Jewish animus in the postwar period remains largely unexplored, Bell’s personal experiences can assist those interested in investigating that scholarly gap.

Citation: Britt P. Tevis. Review of Ball, Howard, Taking the Fight South: Chronicle of a Jew's Battle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57132

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