July 20, 1938 – January 24, 2007
Raised in New York, New York
During the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, McComb, Mississippi was frequently referred to as the “bombing capital of America.” In this small city and the surrounding counties, the older White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were considered too passive by some, who then joined the more “militant” United Klans of America. Violence steadily escalated.
SNCC staffer Mendy Samstein was staying in the McComb Freedom House on August 4, 1964, when a bomb ripped through the nearby Burglund supermarket. The market was also directly across the street from the McComb Freedom School. The blast was powerful enough to knock people down two blocks away.
Samstein was able to make it to the site of the blast and followed two white men he spotted leaving the scene. SNCC had been suspicious of their car, one of many on an internal list of suspicious cars they kept. Police, however, were disinterested, focusing instead on the civil rights workers themselves, and no one was ever arrested for the crime.
Jehudah Menachem Mendel “Mendy” Samstein’s involvement with the South began when he was offered a teaching job at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He took it so that he could be close to the Civil Rights Movement but soon left academia to join the Mississippi Movement. He felt a deep connection to the Movement because of his feelings about the Holocaust. “He did not want to permit that kind of destruction of a race to happen again,” his wife later said.
Samstein arrived in Mississippi during the late fall of 1963. He was fully committed to COFO’s efforts at grassroots organizing. In addition to working in COFO’s state headquarters in Jackson, he was one of the first whites to become involved in the Mississippi Delta.
When the Summer Project ended, Samstein stayed in Mississippi where he distinguished himself repeatedly with fearlessness in the face of personal danger. When he and several other SNCC workers were in jail in Pike County, he witnessed a state investigator physically abusing several of them, including Aylene Quin. Upon their release, he confronted the state investigator and attempted to get his name. When the man refused, he demanded the FBI agents monitoring their release there do something about it. However, the FBI agents refused.
Samstein’s commitment to social change did not end in Mississippi. He spent years teaching in the New York Public School system and later worked with Bob Moses on the Algebra Project. Stokely Carmichael, when asked about Samstein, called him “one in a million.”
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Judy Richardson, “My Enduring ‘Circle of Trust,’” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 348-366.
Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998).