Miyuki Kita, an American Studies professor at the University of Kitakyushu in southern Japan, has focused her entire academic career on Jewish political activism in the United States. Her town has no Jewish community.
“Japanese students know only Martin Luther King, Jr., and regard him as the only hero of the civil rights movement,” said Kita from her home in Kitakyushu on the southernmost Japanese island near South Korea. “So I would like Japanese readers to know the civil rights movement has been made up by various people including white people and women.”
Her concentration is Jewish involvement in the US civil rights movement, the subject of her recently published book which translates the diary of Lynn Goldberg (nee Goldsmith), a Jewish Brandeis University student who spent the summer of 1965 in Calhoun County, South Carolina. Goldberg worked for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project, a voter registration drive.
In 2011 Goldberg donated the chronicle of her stay in the South to the Brandeis University Archives, and portions of it have been posted online.
Published in Japanese, the English title of Kita’s book is “Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement: Lynn Goldsmith, a Jewish Student Volunteer, Summer 1965.” The picture on the book’s cover shows Goldberg in her Brandeis University yearbook photo with dark eyeliner and a bob. While completely in vertical Japanese script, the book reads right to left and is peppered with photos of Goldberg dressed for the heat in a sleeveless dress and long braids.
There are also photos of other subjects: young idealistic participants in the project, a racially diverse group of young lunch counter sit-in protesters being assaulted by segregationists, Ku Klux Klan flyers, a photo of a Klan cross burning, SCOPE recruitment pamphlets and a present-day photograph of Goldberg.
During her research, Kita had to educate herself on SCOPE and the numerous unfamiliar names in the work. While reading the diary, she could not distinguish between who was black and who was white, who was local and who was visiting. One thing she could tell was that Goldberg, an anthropology student at the time, was a good writer. Her activist father, Dr. George J. Goldsmith, had encouraged Goldberg to keep a diary over the summer.
SCOPE followed on the heels of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi where two Jewish volunteers, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, who along with local activist Ben Chaney were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Those three are also pictured in Kita’s book along with Martin Luther King.
The story of their coreligionists who participated and fought in the civil rights movement in the South (and the rest of the country) is not very widely known, even among American Jews. For Kita, publishing the story for the Japanese is an educational mission. She said she hopes her book explains the contribution of unsung, unknown people in the civil rights movement.
‘The only image we have of the Jewish people is Anne Frank or the Holocaust’
“I want readers to know that there was severe discrimination in the US and Europe for Jews because in Japan we don’t know Jews live in the US,” Kita said. “The only image we have of the Jewish people is Anne Frank or the Holocaust. Also I argue that because of Jews’ minority status, the Jewish people have done much to forward the American ideal of freedom and democracy.”
Kita said she explored the roots of the SCLC-SCOPE project and specifically focused on the case of Brandeis University, which sent the largest group of students. “In the epilogue I mention SCOPE’s legacy, the story of the 50th reunion in Atlanta last year which I attended, and recent enactments of voter ID laws at several states,” said Kita.
‘She sees things those who are connected do not see’
While there is an active American Studies Association in Japan, there is a limited academic interest in Japan in the American Jewish experience.
Recently, the University of Michigan’s American Jewish History professor Deborah Dash Moore visited the University of Kitakyushu as Kita’s guest and part of the Organization of American Historians Japan Association for American Studies fellowship. Dash Moore was initially surprised about Kita’s interest in American Jews.
“Japanese women students and scholars were particularly drawn to American minority discourses, which have helped them to understand and negotiate their own minority status,” Dash Moore wrote after her visit to Japan. “As dissenters within the United States, as a group often stigmatized yet resilient enough to forge an independent history and produce changes in American society, American Jews offered a kind of comparative model.”
Regarding Kita’s research and book on Goldberg and Brandeis involvement in the civil rights movement, Dash Moore thinks the book is unique in its approach.
“She sees things those who are connected do not see,” said Dash Moore. “This is a valuable contribution to the field.”
To research the story Kita spent the 2011-2012 academic year as a Fulbright Scholar at Brandeis.
“I found that the students had a very active civil rights movement,” Kita said. “And I was convinced of how many Jewish people were committed to civil rights.”
In 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the death of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, Kita presented her work at a Brandeis University conference on Blacks, Jews and Social Justice in America organized by American Studies professor Stephen Whitfield.
“Her book captures a particular moment in history where you see that the only way society was changed was by people taking risks,” said Whitfield, who mentored Kita while she was on campus. “[Kita’s book shows] people demonstrated bravery outside of their particular interests. It was a moment of civic bravery.”
‘You don’t have to be British to study Shakespeare’
This reporter met Kita at a Jews and Civil Rights-focused Southern Jewish Historical Society conference in 2013 in Birmingham, Alabama and again at a 2014 Freedom Summer 50th anniversary conference at Miami University in Ohio. Her interest in Jews’ role in the US civil rights movement is intriguing, but so is the fact that she is not the only non-Jewish academic who focuses their career on Jews.
‘Resilient enough to forge an independent history and change society, American Jews offered a kind of comparative model’
Brandeis University’s Professor of American Jewish History Jonathan Sarna mentored Kita during her research. He said Jewish and Jewish American studies is growing worldwide, especially in Asia. China is another hotspot.
“You don’t have to be British to study Shakespeare,” said Sarna. “Scholars approaching the subject in different places will have a different perspective making the field less parochial and more international. We are enhanced by the study of other civilizations. We often see others studying other societies — Greece, Rome, the Bible — in order to draw lessons for our own society.”
Kita did not come to Jewish American history recently, but she did so with fresh eyes.
While majoring in English as an undergraduate student at University of Ochanomizu in Tokyo, she watched the documentary “Eyes On The Prize” for the first time and learned about the thousands of foot soldiers in the US civil rights struggle. She then pursued a Master’s and PhD in American history. During that time she studied African American history at University of Maryland, College Park, with stints at New York University and a research fellowship at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.
While in New York in 2011, she visited a synagogue for the first time, as well as the gay pride parade where “500,000 people celebrated the passage of the law” allowing gay marriage. Kita was struck by all the sub, minority and affinity groups within the gay pride parade.
Her research produced her first book published in 2009, “Half-Opened Golden Door: American Jews’ Quest for Color-Blindness in College Admission” on American Jews’ fight to end quotas in universities.
“I found Jews who were against the quota system were supportive of Brown vs the Board of Education [Supreme Court Ruling desegregating school]; they were also against the Jim Crow system,” said Kita.
That research led her to learn more about Brandeis University, which was developed to open opportunities for Jewish students.
Kita herself is an activist who attends peace rallies against the increased militarization of Japan.
“In my current book I wanted to show how important voting rights are,” Kita said. “Fifty years ago people died to help register African American people to vote. In Japan we don’t need to register to vote but people are not interested in politics. They just give up.”
‘We were arrested and we were shot at. We were young’
Kita had to learn about the many groups formed in the 1960s including white Jewish college students who got involved in that struggle.
As part of Kita’s research she attended a 50th reunion of the SCOPE project in Atlanta with Goldberg, who was surprised to be the subject of a book in Japanese.
“I find it amusing,” said Goldberg, who acknowledges the irony that she has retired to Charleston in South Carolina, a state where the Jim Crow laws were once rigidly enforced.
‘We belonged to a group who believed in King’s nonviolent ways to make things equitable’
Looking back at her summer in St. Matthews, South Carolina, Goldberg said she remembers many emotions, including feeling the warmth of the black population she went to help as well as the violence from the white power structure.
“It was dangerous,” said Goldberg. “We were arrested and we were shot at. We were young. We belonged to a group who believed in King’s nonviolent ways to make things equitable. We believed we were right.”
Goldberg called Kita a very courageous, focused and dedicated academic. For her part, Kita said Goldberg was kind and generous. The Japanese students in her American History class regularly write Goldberg and the retiree takes the time to respond to their questions.
Kita has already moved on to her next research project — Jewish students at City University of New York Queens College who turned a critical eye on discrimination in their own backyard in Long Island during the 1960s.