Mendy Samstein (1938-2007), Unsung Hero of Freedom Summer
Editor’s Note: This story is part of our yearlong anniversary coverage of Jews’ involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement.
By Dina Weinstein
In the winter of 1963, a 25-year-old doctoral student at the University of Chicago traveled to Atlanta, Georgia. There, Mendy Samstein connected with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and activist academics who were a part of the movement, participating in sit-ins and organizing marches. In many ways, his story was not unique: Like thousands of others in Chicago and throughout the North, he wanted to help with the struggle against segregation and violence. But Samstein would become one of the movement’s few core, long-time Jewish staff members and one of the architects of Freedom Summer.
Mendy Samstein quickly connected with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and met Bob Moses, one of SNCC’s black leaders, who invited him to come to Mississippi. The pair worked closely to organize freedom activists for nearly three years, with Samstein staying on until the organization kicked whites out with the rise of Black Power. In the end of his life, he reunited with Moses’ Algebra Project, taking on a role similar to the one he had held with SNCC. Samstein’s participation with SNCC as a planner and administrator laid groundwork for the hundreds of students to come down to the Magnolia State in the summer of 1964 for the Freedom Summer.
It was as an undergraduate at Brandeis University that the social justice seed was planted in Samstein. On April 3, 1957, the 19-year-old sophomore from the Lower East Side of New York City heard a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak about race relations to the student body in Waltham, Massachusetts. King gave his talk entitled “Justice without Violence” as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that led the successful Montgomery bus boycott the previous year. Earlier that year, King had been elected President of the newly founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King’s message of overcoming hate with love and the importance of community were revelatory for Samstein. His words resonated with Samstein’s own experience of discrimination and injustice he felt growing up religious, the son of a kosher butcher and a student at the Orthodox Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva on the Lower East Side (he was not religious in his adult life). Samstein was no stranger to the American Jewish experience of witnessing anti-Semitism in the shadow of the Holocaust.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” was the feeling that Samstein’s widow Nancy, who had also been a Freedom Summer volunteer, said their generation felt while helplessly watching the atrocities unfold in Europe. “He felt rotten and angry about the passivity.”
Samstein was drawn to communication and was a gifted writer, reporting for Brandeis’ student newspaper The Justice for two years. Many of his stories addressed discrimination and civil rights, like one he wrote in 1958 titled “15 Students Accuse Princeton Clubs; Charge Disloyalty, Discrimination.” Other articles focused on the new State of Israel, civil rights activism and the growing needs of the University.
One of the only public documents where Samstein details his unique and broad involvement with SNCC is an 82-page transcript of a 1965 interview by Anne Romaine archived with the SNCC papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society where he details his role at the Jackson, Mississippi office. In the interview, he describes the non-hierarchical nature of the Jackson office:
“We had the beginnings of a bureaucracy compared to prior to the March on Washington in the sense that we had an office, we had a statewide phone, we sent out letters, we had typewriters. This was new in a sense in Mississippi. There was only field activity. There was no central operation…We worked as a people. Nobody was the chief and we weren’t functionalized and departmentalized. We all worked. You did what you were interested in. You talked, you had meetings. Somebody went to Hattiesburg. Somebody took the phone. Somebody worked on some things and so on….Nobody ever stayed in a boxes. It was fluidity…You couldn’t make a chart of any kind. You have to just get a hangar wire and twist it all around if you want a diagram.”
What Samstein and others were doing was dangerous. He explained: “You didn’t have the right to organize, not only the question of whether you could bring about change, but you didn’t have the right to organize, which meant that you didn’t have the right to meetings without retaliation, you didn’t have the right to march or picket or demonstrate, any of the first amendments processes by which people protest and organize and bring, to redress grievances, you know, bring about change.”
Samstein had another unique role as an administrator and as a New Yorker. In the winter of 1964, he participated in a seven-day SNCC meeting in Greenville, Mississippi to hash out bringing white Northern College students down to the Magnolia State. Samstein explained the momentum after a small group of Northern students came down to mobilize black Mississippians for the November 1963 election: “The possibility presented itself that about a thousand students could be mobilized…the question was, what would it mean. Where would it fit in? It was very, very hard for people to tackle that question. You had no way of knowing. People talked at that time about confrontation in the sense that the students coming down would help create a confrontation in the sense that the federal government would be forced to recognize that it had a responsibility to protect people in Mississippi.”
Bruce Watson, in his 2010 book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (Viking), wrote that SNCC “had braved Mississippi when no one else would. They still bore the scars—bloody welts, broken bones, bullet wounds you could put your finger in. And now a bunch of white college kids with names like Pam and Geoff were being invited to Mississippi to gather headlines and plaudits for bravery.”
SNCC veteran Charlie Cobb knew the 25-year-old Samstein as someone who was a little older than the college-age volunteers who ended up coming down, someone with administrative skills who, starting in 1963, worked in the umbrella Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) office in Jackson, Mississippi taking care of details of the summer project.
“I liked talking to Mendy,” remembered Cobb. “He was full of ideas.”
But Cobb and Samstein were of different camps on whether to hold the summer project at all. Cobb and Moses had been working in Mississippi for years with local activists who understood the great dangers in the Magnolia State.
“Mendy went through great pains to tell the students those concerns,” said Cobb. “For the college students it would be easy for them to take over from the local leadership. Mendy took those concerns seriously and passed that on to the summer volunteers.”
On July 8, 1964 Samstein emerged from a Freedom House in McComb, Mississippi after three explosions ripped a gaping hole in the front wall of the home occupied by nine other civil rights workers conducting voter drives.
The concussion shattered the windshield of an automobile in the driveway of the white frame house and broke three windows in two homes across the street and injured the people within, according to The New York Times.
“We are determined as ever that we are going to stick this thing out,” Samstein was quoted in the Times. “We are going to show the [Negro] people that we are willing to share their suffering. We hope in this way to heighten the country’s, the Federal Government’s sense of responsibility for breaking down this state of lawlessness.
McComb was particularly dangerous. SNCC logged pages of incidents including arrests, beatings, bombings and night riders that took place in the southwest Mississippi town. After the McComb Freedom House bombing Samstein filed a passionate typewritten three-page report entitled “Bombings 13th and 14th in McComb, Mississippi.”
An excerpt read: “Then the blast. That sickening, anguishing sound that has been heard twelve previous times over the last three months–that sound that Negroes in McComb have come to know too well. And everyone in McComb hears the sound of the blast. McComb is a small town and very, very quiet. At night the sound of the blast can be heard for miles. And so tonight the blast heard for the 13th time-and shortly the 14th time. Tonight the sound is more anguishing–for the pain grows worse with each bombing. Every Negro in McComb instantly knows what that sound means. And then the moments of torment that follow–whose house, who is dead? It’s not mine. Then who? My neighbor, my friend–my mother, my brother, my son, or maybe COFO again. Who? And one’s stomach aches with pain and the pain seeps up into the chest and head and comes out of every pore. Who? Is someone dead? The fear and the suspense grows–the anguish becomes unbearable. People grab whatever clothing they can find and run out into the streets. ”
The report was one of many SNCC used to document violence in Mississippi, proof that the federal government must act to stop the viciousness. The same report ran in a September 23, 1964 issue of The Student Voice newspaper put out weekly by SNCC and distributed nationally. Samstein’s article “The Murder Of A Community” was beneath an article with the headline “Bomb Blasts Rock McComb.”
Samstein’s 1965 interview never mentions the McComb bombing. It reaches a climax at the Democratic National Convention as a key and trusted actor and in the inner circle as local black Mississippians in the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party prepared to enter the Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey to unseat the all-white Dixie-crat delegation. Samstein was involved in the delegation’s negotiations for seats.
Samstein describes how delegates from other states at the Democratic National Convention asked planted questions to the all white Mississippi delegation: “And suddenly they were in a bigger tribunal and you had this amazing sense where they couldn’t come out and just beat you over the head. In fact, they were quite clearly on the defensive. It was really you had. You were proud and you feel great and it really was good. It was — Finally these very evil people were being brought out into the light and it was like, you were in the darkness with this whole situation and then suddenly out in the light and these guys were suddenly having to answer before a bar of justice for all their evil crimes. And that’s the sense that I had and I think that a lot of Mississippians had, probably stronger than I did. For the first time they saw Mississippians on the defensive. I mean: “There’s no question segregation is right, and all that” and then suddenly, they’re having to cover up and they had to deny that they were members of the Klan and even deny they were members of the White Citizens Council and this was a tremendous kind of experience that everyone could see them.”
Toward the end of SNCC photographer Danny Lyon’s book Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, a photograph shows Samstein smoking a cigarette, looking aged and exhausted at an important SNCC meeting in November 1964 in Waveland, MS. By this time the hundreds of Freedom Summer volunteers had returned to their colleges and hometowns. The civil rights organization decided to reconstitute itself.
Samstein stayed with SNCC as Freedom Summer came to an end working on tenants’ rights in Atlanta, even as the inter-racial aspect of the organization fizzled. With the 1965 rise of Black Power, whites were thanked and dismissed from the movement.
“It was devastating for us all,” Nancy Samstein said.
At a December 1966 SNCC retreat in the Catskills where they passed a resolution to exclude whites, Lyon wrote Stokely Carmichael was chairman. The photographer explained Samstein’s key role until the end: “Bob Moses had gone to Canada to avoid the draft. He had changed his name to Parris, his mother’s name, and he had told Mendy Samstein, with whom he had worked for years, that Mendy was the last white person he would ever talk to.”
After Freedom Summer Samstein worked as a schoolteacher, union organizer, camp director and therapist.
Remembering Samstein after his death, staff from Bob Moses’ Algebra Project wrote: “His work in those years was indispensable to SNCC’s Mississippi Movement, which was instrumental to the transformation of the political party structures of Mississippi and the nation.”