It’s funny how vacation sometimes makes you think harder than classes. My family spent winter break visiting the American South, where my maternal great-great-grandparents moved after they left Eastern Europe in the 1880s. They settled in Galveston, Texas, and over the next century the family spread throughout the South. I now have roots in Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, and we were visiting the last three.
Mississippi was by far our most interesting stop. We stayed with my great-uncle Joe, an 84-year-old retired contractor who lives in Jackson and has found himself at more historical crossroads than anyone I know.
To mount an organized response to the threat the Ku Klux Klan posed to Jackson’s Jewish community, Uncle Joe and some synagogue buddies formed an organization in 1967 they called “The Kosher Nostra.” Their motto was “no rules, no dues, no women, just Jews.”
In one notable story, a Klan defector approached them with an offer: He would provide them information about the unsolved murders of civil rights activists if they paid him the princely sum of $40,000. After collecting the money from Uncle Joe’s fraternity brothers, the Kosher Nostra provided the information to the FBI, which then used it to nab the guilty parties. In another, Uncle Joe posed as a member of the extremist Jewish Defense League and threatened to blow up a television station airing a presentation by the White Citizens’ Council. The station pulled the show.
I had already heard these and other stories about Uncle Joe, but never from him. It was wonderful hearing them in his drawl and his cantankerous speaking style. Though his heroism was inspiring, a question nagged. And on our way to tour the historic Mississippi State Capitol, I saw my chance to resolve it.
“Why did you do it?” I asked. “You know, risk your neck against the Klan?"
He responded without hesitating: “Self-preservation. No one else was going to do it for us: not the whites, and certainly not the blacks. We had to do it ourselves.”
Growing more curious, I asked if he had supported the Civil Rights movement. “I didn’t really care,” he recalled. “Oh sure, I sympathized with what they were doing, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to do anything about it. Of course, there were liberals in the congregation who would visit the bombed churches and attend marches and protests, but I wasn’t into all of that.”
His remarks unnerved me, though at the time I wasn’t certain why. Upon later reflection, I realized that my discomfort related to a deeper question, one at the heart of American political theory: Is it enough to do good through the pursuit of self-interest? Or should we demand virtue?
Uncle Joe’s story is a classic example of how seeking to protect oneself can actually generate tremendous social good: Though he and his friends had no great love for Jackson’s African-American community, their efforts directly and positively impacted it. For this they deserve our praise.
But not our exaltation. Unlike the most important heroes of the Civil Rights era — like Freedom Rider and Cornellian Michael Schwerner ’61 — they acted on an overly narrow conception of self-interest. In not doing more to aid the cause of civil rights, Uncle Joe and his friends failed to meet the higher standard of virtue our society must demand.
In fact, many of us would frown upon Uncle Joe because we’re confident that, were we around in the 1960s, we would've displayed greater virtue and acted more like Schwerner than Uncle Joe. But we would be mistaken. Let’s not forget that Schwerner and his fellow activists were heroic because so few of their peers were willing to sacrifice as much as they did. Indeed, given the human inclination to remain neutral in the face of moral collapse, it’s a stretch even to assume we would’ve done as much as Uncle Joe.
After we visited the Mississippi State Capital, Uncle Joe brought us to a Jewish cemetery that was erected in 1860. He pointed out the gravestone of a Confederate soldier who died in a war camp in Coffeesville, Alabama. His body was shipped home.
A Jewish boy who died defending an unambiguous evil. He was caught up in his context, and yet his gravestone seemed to cry out to me: What would you have done?
I wanted to answer his question, but I left Mississippi not knowing how to. I’m still not sure I can. If the trip taught me anything, though, it's the importance of knowing one's principles, and that the most potent threat to those principles is not an obviously immoral, external adversary, but our tragic tendency towards complacency. Mississippi reminded me to remain vigilant against it.
Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.