There are two ways to change the world--from the inside, and from the outside. You can get involved and work within a system to change the way that system operates, or you can stand outside that system and work to change it by putting pressure on it through protest, legal action, or violence.
Usually, true change in the nation's fabric takes a combination of internal and external forces working in concert. The civil-rights movement was a good example of that sort of concerted change.
Those within the political establishment who had secured positions of power worked in concert with those outside the political establishment who protested, sued, and, in some cases, violently rose up against the forces of inequality in this nation.
This was a cause that was dependent upon a broad group of people, and one group that was represented in disproportionate numbers were Jews. Jewish lawmakers, Jewish students, Jewish philanthropists, and Jewish activists all worked together to secure civil rights for African Americans.
Why? Well, when you are intimately aware of what it is to live under the shadow of hate, when you have just survived a holocaust, when you know that the future of every human being is tied to the future of every other human being, and when you are acutely aware that the denial of human rights to one group is the denial of human rights to all--you get involved.
Unfortunately, most black American youth have no historical knowledge. They are completely unaware of the Jewish contributions to the civil rights struggle. Their attitudes and prejudices are based more upon the hate-mongering of men like Lewis Farrakhan than on the truth of history.
This is a very long and a very worthwhile paper, published in 2002, which highlights some of the historical ignorance about the Civil Rights Movement. It focuses upon the Jews of the South, and particularly, the Jews of Montgomery, Alabama during the time of Martin Luther King Jr.
We have a proud heritage. There is more than the holocaust to remember. Never Forget! is a big order to fill, and in order to complete that order--we must constantly educate ourselves.
Local rifts over Jewish support for African Americans in the pre-civil rights Era
The history of the modern civil rights movement in America is undeniably the story of cooperation among Blacks, Jews, and other progressive whites in the struggle to gain constitutional rights for Blacks and other dominated minorities. It is a history that is as old as the founding of the American nation, but a story that would reach revolutionary proportions in the 20th century. While the 1960s is frequently described as "the civil rights decade," the legal, intellectual, and organizational seeds that contributed to the success of the modern civil rights struggle were actually planted back at the turn of the 20th century. Foremost in the planting of these seeds was the historic commitment of American Jews to the promotion of civil rights and racial equality. Not only was this commitment expressed through financial support, it was also expressed in kind and in various other forms of personal sacrifice. As far back as to the era of institutionalized slavery, individual members of the Jewish community, in spite of the risk of personal persecution, frequently provided assistance to Blacks in their struggle for liberation. This was the case in the early 1800s when two Jewish brothers paid to liberate a Black man who had been kidnapped from the doorsteps of his home in New Jersey and sold into slavery in the South (Whitman, 2-6).
An Established Legacy of Jewish Support for the Black Cause
It was largely with the help of Jewish philanthropy that the largest and longest lasting civil rights organization in the U.S., the NAACP, was founded in 1909. Among its founding parents were a number of Jewish leaders, including Henry Moskowitz, Lilian Wald, Emil Hirsch, and Stephen Wise--all of whose signatures remain to this day appended to the organization's founding charter. For nearly a quarter century, from 1914 to 1939, Joel E. Spingarn, another Jewish leader, would serve as its chairman. Financial contributions that supported the activities of the NAACP in these early years came mainly from such wealthy German-American Jews as William and Julius Rosenwald, Herbert Lehman, and Felix Warburg. Indeed, Julius Rosenwald, alone, funded the building of 5,337 elementary schools for Blacks across the South. These schools contributed to the education of more than 650,000 African Americans--approximately 25 to 40 percent of Blacks who were educated in the South by 1932 (Kaufman, 2). During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the historic incident that launched the modern civil rights movement, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) received significant donations from northern Jewish organizations (Kaufman, 20-31, 91). MIA is a local grassroots organization that was formed in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to provide the networking that enabled Blacks to live through the boycott. Under the visionary leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, its founding president, it developed self-help strategies that enabled Blacks to sustain the boycott. Though very little is known outside of Alabama, MIA was indispensable to the success of the bus boycott. It worked in mobilizing the local community to expand their demonstrations into other areas of the civil rights straggle. Several other prominent civil rights organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress for Racial Equality received much of their financial support from northern Jewish philanthropists at the height of the modern civil rights movement in the sixties (Kaufman, 63).
As wealthy Jewish donors contributed money, talent, and organizational support, young Jewish activists contributed their time, youth and energy. More than two-thirds of the white freedom riders, and over one-third of the volunteers for the campaign for voter registration in the 1960s, were young Jewish students. All in all, an astounding 96 percent of the national Jewish community supported President Kennedy's decision to dispatch federal troops to help enforce desegregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1961 (Kaufman, 19, 91). When Martin Luther King was jailed on January 26, 1956 in Montgomery for an alleged speeding violation, New York's Rabbi Rosenblum charged that the arrest of King "emphasizes some of the amazing contradictions upon which the American people and the world should ponder." After bomb attacks on the homes of King and E.D. Nixon, the Chicago Rabbinical Association proclaimed March 28 a day of prayer for "the harassed Negroes of Montgomery," and passed a resolution denouncing all acts directed at undermining the process of racial integration as "treasonable" (Bauman & Kalin, 77).
Re-Examining the Epicenter of the Modern Civil Rights Struggle
As seen from the preceding paragraphs, while Jewish contributions to the civil rights movement may be very well documented at the national level, very little is known about contributions that were made at the local level. Indeed, "existing studies on the relationship between African-Americans and Jews have focused almost entirely upon cosmopolitan northern cities such as New York and Chicago. The interaction between the two peoples in the southern states has, in contrast, received relatively little attention" (New York Times, 1956, 58). Given what Jewish groups in the north and at the national level were able to do, there is no doubt that Jews in the local communities of the south would have made contributions to the civil rights movement that went unstudied and undocumented. It is the purpose of the present study to research and document such contributions. To properly do this, no southern community is more appropriate for the study of Jewish contributions at the local, grassroots level than Montgomery, Alabama. According to Clive Webb, "events in Montgomery provide a microcosmic portrait of the situation which confronted all southern Jews during the desegregation crisis" (Webb, 465-466). Known as the birthplace of the two most important revolutions that have influenced the destiny of the American nation-state, Montgomery has earned its place in the galaxy of modern American cities as the launching ground for revolutionary activities. While America's first revolution was launched through the wires of a telegraph dispatched from the confederate capital ordering the firing of the canons that started the American Civil War, the second revolution would be launched from the seats of a city bus that ignited the boycott that would lead to the outbreak of the civil rights revolution. That both were launched from Montgomery would forever transform the image of this quiet, serene southern city into that of a national theater for conservative and progressive activism. There is no doubt therefore that any identifiable ethnic group which lived in this hotbed of American activism during the heydays of the modern civil rights movement would have debated openly or privately whether to take a conservative or progressive stance, or play a direct or indirect role in the grand dilemma of the day--the struggle for civil rights.
The success of every grand oeuvre requires the active participation of foot soldiers. These are individuals who operate at the grassroots level, passing out communications, organizing meetings, and maintaining linkages between local and national organizations. While the study of the civil rights struggle frequently limits itself to the contributions of such iconoclastic figures as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, very little is thought of the foot-soldiers whose efforts contributed to the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. Just as the contributions of many African Americans at the grassroots level have gone unrecognized, there are also members of the Jewish community whose contributions to the civil rights movement at the local level were overshadowed by the contributions and outpouring of support that came from national Jewish organizations. Efforts are underway elsewhere to research and document the contributions of African-Americans to the success of the civil rights movement at the grassroots level. Here, we will, in the final analysis, attempt to identify, discuss, and acknowledge the contributions of members of the local Jewish community that have so far gone unrecognized.
Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Ambivalence in the Local Jewish Community
With the understanding that at the national level Jews were the most activist white supporters of the civil rights struggle, it was but natural to expect that such activism was going to be reflected in the local Jewish community. At the height of the civil rights movement in 1964, the size of the local Jewish community in Montgomery was 1,800--out of a total city population of 134,000 residents. However, the largest concentration of the Jewish community in Alabama was in Birmingham, which had a population of 4,000 Jews, in a city of some 630,000 residents (Webb, 480). Though small in size, the local Jewish community in Alabama was dynamic, cohesive, and politically influential. Indeed, more than a hundred years earlier, in 1870, a member of the local Jewish community, Mordecai Moses, was elected mayor of the city of Montgomery. Later in the 1950s, another Jewish businessman was elected president of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce. In spite of this political influence, the civil rights activism that was characteristic of Jews at the national level would not be reflected in the local Jewish community in Montgomery. Out of the fear for persecution, and cognizant of its small number and history of victimization, the Jewish community in Montgomery largely shied away from active involvement in the civil rights struggle. In his book, Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community, Rabbi Marc Shneier indicates that it was primarily out of the fear of white Protestants, and concern for their economic and social welfare that Southern Jews imposed a code of silence on their rabbis. Later in the article, we are going to name and discuss a few daring exceptions of members of the local Jewish community who stood up despite the threat of persecution, in defense of what Shneier describes as the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim or the commandment of rescuing those who are in need (Shneier, 12 and 23).
In what has been described by Leonard Dinnerstein as "a conspiracy of silence," much of the local Jewish leadership in Montgomery, and in much of the South made no public statements in support or against the civil rights movement. According to Dinnerstein, "in the South, it is rare to find a Jew who would publicly support controversial issues. The best example of this is in the position taken by most Southern Jews on civil rights and integration. While many privately believe that the Negro should have equal rights, few come out and say so" (Dollinger, 8). However, when faced with the difficult dilemma of openly choosing between civil rights for Blacks and their own physical, social, and economic wellbeing, local Jews usually chose their wellbeing.
Unlike their northern Jewish counterparts, southern Jews knew that in times of crises, they were likely going to become potential scapegoats. Not before long, an occasion for such a crisis would occur, with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated the desegregation of schools in the South. It was a case in which the Anti-Defamation League, one of the foremost national Jewish organizations, acted as an ami curaie of the Court in support of the suit that was filed by the NAACP. The national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, Henry Schultz, was so thrilled with the decision that in an address to the press, he indicated that the Court's favorable ruling was going to "wipe out the anachronistic separate but equal doctrine that has been nothing more than a legal cover for the imposition of second-class status on millions of Negro citizens" (Dollinger, 8). Overall, as much as 96 percent of the northern Jewish population supported the ruling, along with Kennedy's decision to use federal troops to enforce desegregation in Montgomery. On the ground, however, southern Jews were uncomfortable with the growing agitation that marked the civil rights movement, and appealed to northern Jews to stay out of the melee. Along with their opposition to the Montgomery bus boycott, members of the Montgomery Jewish community would pointedly indicate to the northern-based American Jewish Committee that "they were morally opposed to integration. `The white community in the South is generally opposed to desegregation ... the Jewish community in the South is part of the white community in the South'" (Southern Isrealite, 1954). The Montgomery Improvement Association lawyer, Fred Gray indicates that during the civil rights movement, he saw "no basic distinction between Jews and Caucasians" and was therefore not disappointed by the opposition of the Montgomery Jewish community to the civil rights movement.
Undoubtedly, what local Jews feared most was retribution from the larger white community and ostracism from members of their congregations. As William D. Workman puts it, "The Hebrew who draws criticism upon himself draws it likewise upon Jews everywhere" (Webb, 480). The source of fear in southern Jews is partially traceable to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager accused of the alleged rape and murder of a white woman in Georgia. Following that lynching, American Jews came to the realization that they too could be subjected to the same persecutions as African Americans. While northern Jews responded to the lynching by supporting Black causes and pushing for stricter civil rights laws, southern Jews responded by affiliating with white organizations, and identifying with segregationist viewpoints (Webb, 470). The southern Jewish community felt that the involvement of even one Jewish person in the civil rights movement would place the entire ethnic group at risk of retribution. For most local Jews, "... no one had the right to upset the delicate balance whereby Jews had been treated well and accepted generally as fellow southerners" (Hertzberg, 18-25). In an article in the Southern Israelite, Isaac Toubin explains that "Jews who espouse and defend the cause of civil rights jeopardize the security of isolated Jewish communities in the South, threaten their social integration and economic position, and ultimately even their physical safety" (Krause, 23-24).
This statement was directed at northern Jewish organizations that, as indicated above, actively gave financial and in-kind support to the civil rights movement. In an effort to punish the national Jewish leadership for their support of desegregation and other civil rights causes, the Montgomery Jewish community resorted to withholding financial contributions to the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and other national Jewish organizations. "Membership subscriptions were cancelled. Donations dried up." And "the Anti-Defamation League was similarly `plagued' with `resignations and protests'" (Maslow, 2; Fishman, 42)
Of all Southern cities, Harold Fleming indicates that Montgomery "represents an inflamed situation where racial tension has been accompanied by overt appeals to anti-Semitism; I gather that feelings of insecurity and anxiety in the Jewish community are accordingly greater there than in most other Southern cities" (Southern Regional Council Papers, Reel 3, 0755-0756). Rabbi Eugene Blachschleger of Temple Beth Or later indicated that he "made no public pronouncements on this subject (of racial desegregation) either from my pulpit or in the columns or our daily press." In the raucous days when the city of Montgomery was rocked by bus boycotts and civil rights demonstrations, Rabbi Blachschleger, who was at the time the spiritual leader of the largest Jewish congregation in Montgomery, avowed that "if Martin Luther King passed me on the street, I would not recognize him. We have never spoken to each other" (Mantiband Papers, 22-23).
Twenty years earlier, his predecessor, Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of the very congregation, Temple Beth Or, refused to be silenced as he publicly decried the injustices surrounding the conviction of the Scottsboro Boys--a group of nine Black youths accused in the rape of two white girls. Rabbi William Maley would admit that "the rabbis have not spoken out, and to have done so would have been to invite resentment and anti-Semitism, if not, indeed, violence towards the Jewish community." Reasoning with the others, Rabbi Moses Landau rationalizes that "if you are going to take sides and agitate, you accomplish nothing, except the hostility of the people." Laudau felt that if he had spoken out in support of the civil rights movement that support "would have been limited to twenty-four hours." After that, "I wouldn't be there in that state anymore ... the Jewish community could not exist if they were in any way involved in the civil movement" (Dollinger, 72-73). Because southern Jewish survival required acceptance of the status quo, most local Jewish communities chose to identify and align themselves with the ideological viewpoints of the larger white population.
To diffuse the disenchantment expressed by the members of the Montgomery Jewish community, representatives of the national executive board of the Anti-Defamation League and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations agreed to meet with representatives of the local Jewish community. At the meeting, Montgomery businessman Leonel Weil seized the opportunity to angrily attack the national executive for failing to con suit with southern members prior to giving support to the civil rights movement. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations' representative at the talks, Albert Vorspan, along with other northern Jews, was described as "worse than Hitler," as their actions had "stirred up anti-Semitism." Finding many of the fears and concerns expressed by southern Jews largely valid, the national executives agreed on the following compromise:
Whenever any public action shall be contemplated by the ADL affecting a regional constituency, such action shall be taken only after consultation with such regional constituency; in any public action by the ADL, full consideration be given to the welfare and best interest of all Jews throughout the country, including those who reside in the region affected" (Webb, 469).
With the controversy put to rest, members of local Jewish communities went back to working to assimilate with the local white population. Eager for acceptance, Jews across much of the South proudly presented themselves as "sons and daughters of Dixie" and, like the majority population, remained recalcitrant. In Montgomery, for example, the local Jewish community publicized its affiliation with the White Citizen's Council in an effort to show solidarity and gain acceptance as members of the majority population. The Council, according to MIA lawyer, Fred Gray, "pretty much expressed the position of the white community," and for local Jews who refused to join, "the possibilities of reprisals or ostracism" were all too real. Those who refused to join risked accusations of treachery towards the race, especially as the Council threatened to published the names of those who refused to pay the $5 membership fee (Colaiaco, 111-112).
Not too far from Montgomery, the Jewish Rabbi in Jackson, Mississippi was openly proud that members of his congregation had assimilated to an extent that they were "indistinguishable in ideology" from the surrounding community and "as racist as any white non-Jew." To affirm the assimilation of Jews in local southern communities, an October 24, 1958 article in the Jackson State Times stated that "today many a fine Jewish leader is part of the southern resistance. Jackson's Citizens' Council, outstanding in South and Nation, points to them with pride" (Jackson State Times, 1958). Writing about his experiences living in the South as an Army Air Corps chaplain, Rabbi Malcom Stern lamented that he "found Nashville far more progressive and liberal in its attitudes than Montgomery. Although some of the Montgomery Jews we met had attended the better Ivy league colleges ... they hadn't had a thought since the Civil War" (Bauman, 288).
In choosing to assimilate and identify with the segregationist ideology of the larger population, local Jews drew criticisms from the southern Black leadership. Criticizing members of the local Jewish community for feigning support for the civil rights of African Americans by their alleged espousal of slow, measured change, Martin Luther King lamented: "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who...constantly says, `I agree with you on the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods"' (Krause, 71). He went on to express disappointment in the failure of the Montgomery Jewish community to join in the civil rights movement. "Montgomery," King stated, "wants to bury their heads and repeat that it is not a Jewish problem; but it is a right between the forces of justice and injustice" (Malev, 56). In a letter to a friend and fellow clergy, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta, Martin Luther King further lamented that "I think we have to admit, that there are Jews in the South who have gone out of their way to consort with the perpetrators of the status quo. I say this in both Montgomery, Alabama and Albany, Georgia" (Rothschild, 12-43).
Elsewhere in the South, another Black leader, Aaron Henry, former director of the NAACP in Mississippi would indicate that "the image of the Jew in national civil rights activity has not robbed off on the Jewish population of Mississippi. There is little difference, if any, between the Gentile white and the Jew in their treatment of the Negro." Writing to a Rabbinic student in 1965, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth deplored southern Jews for failing to use their considerable economic power to help bring an end to segregation. According to Rev. Shuttlesworth, "The Jewish people could have done more, since they had control" (Dollinger, 71).
The fear that led to the conspiracy of silence, and ultimately to the assimilation and espousal of the segregationist ideology by members of local Jewish communities is all the more astounding given the fact that as late as in the 1940s, the South had the lowest rate of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish discrimination of all regions in the nation. Up until the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, the South was the safest region in the country for Jews. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ideological anti-Semitism was actually more pervasive in the North and mid-Western regions of the United States (Higham, 186-214). It was exactly because of the low rate of anti-Semitism in the South that local Jewish communities, including the Montgomery Jewish community, sought hard to maintain the stares quo. By affiliating with the White Citizen's Council, not only did the Montgomery Jewish community seek to show that they were "at one with the majority viewpoint in the Gentile community," they believed that their action would "inhibit the growth of anti-Semitism" (Dollinger, 70).
Despite the efforts taken by southern Jews to pre-empt the growth of anti-Semitism by identifying with the segregationist viewpoint, the increasing affiliation of northern Jews with the civil rights movement soon transformed the South from a region that hitherto had the lowest rate of anti-Semitism in the nation, into a region that would become virulently anti-Semitic in the post-World War II era. Poll figures published in the 1950s and 1960s now showed the South as "the most antiSemitic region in the country" (Bauman, et al., 9). Across the South, Jewish synagogues, places of worship, and businesses were threatened with physical violence. Sticks of dynamite were discovered at Jewish temples in Charlotte and Gastonia, North Carolina, and in Birmingham, Alabama. On March 16, 1958, a bomb destroyed the Beth-el Synagogue in Miami Florida, and in October of that same year, another Jewish house of worship was destroyed in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombings were followed by threats to the rabbis of the congregations, Abraham Livitan and Jacob Rothschild, to refrain from preaching about racial integration. As Blacks increasingly organized to demand for their constitutional rights, there was growing suspicion among southern whites of a Jewish conspiracy. According to Clive Webb,
... when Blacks began to mobilize themselves into a mass-based protest movement, many whites therefore became suspicious. Unwilling to accept that African-Americans possessed either the ability or the incentive to attack Jim Crow, they searched for the troublemakers who had secretly stirred racial unrest in the South, and were now manipulating the situation to their own political advantage. This search often led segregationists to the national offices of the Jewish defense agencies ... White supremacists were increasingly of the opinion that "the South's problem--its implacable enemy--is not the Negro but the Northern Jew" (Goldern & Sheer, 26).
Individual Local Jewish Leaders Who Stood up in Defense of the Black Cause
While research has shown that threats, bombings, and various acts of intimidation kept members of the local Jewish community from becoming actively involved in the civil rights movement, there were nevertheless some who defied these threats and made personal sacrifices, including the sacrifice of their careers, to speak out in support of the civil rights of African Americans. Among them were Rabbi Benjamin G. Goldstein, Rabbi Seymour Atlas, Attorney Samuel Lebowitz, Professor Joseph Gelders, and Attorney Karl Friedman. We will attempt to examine, more precisely, the individual contributions that each of these Jewish activists made in the bid to stand up in support of the civil rights of African Americans.
In the era immediately preceding the modern civil rights movement Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein's was be the first and most outspoken local Jewish leader to defy tradition and single-handedly take on the establishment to challenge the unlawful prosecution of nine Black youths accused of raping a white girl. The infamous case which came to be known as "The Scottsboro Boys" involved nine Black youngsters who were arrested and indicted on March 25, 1931. Although Blacks are known to have always fought, rebelled, revolted in demand for justice, in the Montgomery of the early 1930s, Blacks were generally accommodationist and tolerant of the injustices that were endemic in the system. As the sociologists Adalberto Aguirre and Jonathan Turner point out, some of the strategies used by oppressed groups to adapt to prejudice and discrimination include resilience to passive acceptance. "If the power of the ethnic group is small and the magnitude of the discrimination great, members of the group may have no choice but to accept the discrimination" (Aguirre & Turner, 14). This would have been the case in 1933 in Montgomery when Blacks were generally reluctant to speak out in defense of the Scottsboro Boys. On March 26, 1933, Rabbi Goldstein took the lead and spoke out publicly in their defense. Prior to his public defense of the nine indicted African American boys, Rabbi Goldstein was known to have been as equally vociferous in his criticism of the exploitation of Black sharecroppers in Alabama (Bauman & Kalin, 47). Because of such outspokenness, members of Rabbi Goldstein's synagogue, Temple Beth Or, the largest Jewish congregation in Montgomery increasingly felt vulnerable to retribution from the larger white population, and invited the Rabbi to moderate rhetoric and public support for Black civil rights causes. After multiple mediation efforts by the well respected Birmingham Rabbi Morris Newfield failed to get Rabbi Goldstein to give up his support for the Scottsboro Boys, for Alabama Share Croppers, and for other African American civil rights causes, he was forced to resign. There were personal threats directed at the Rabbi from the KKK and other hate groups. The threats were fueled by rumors that Rabbi Goldstein was a Southern agent of the communist party. Some of the rumors were allegedly propagated by the city's mayor, who alleged that the Rabbi was planning "to lead a riot of Negroes against the whites on May 20, 1933" (The Montgomery Advertiser, 1933). Fearing for his life, the Rabbi was forced to hurriedly leave town and relocate to New York.
Twenty years later, as events surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott began to unfold, another local Rabbi, Seymour Atlas of Congregation Agudath Israel would suffer the same fate as Rabbi Goldstein. Known for his liberal sermons and his outspoken support for civil rights, Rabbi Atlas caused a split among members of his congregation, many of whom were afraid of retribution from the larger anti-civil rights population. Appeals for him to moderate his rhetoric instead pushed him to the other extreme. Much to the consternation of his congregation, he frequently appeared on local television and radio stations with Martin Luther King, publicly discussing issues relating to desegregation, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and other civil rights problems. To dramatize his activism, Life magazine featured Rabbi Atlas in an article that included his photograph. The article depicted him as a maverick, whose views were so progressive they were out of place in a southern city such as Montgomery. At an emergency meeting summoned by his congregation's board of trustees, Rabbi Atlas was invited to recant his support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and asked to henceforth submit all public speeches he intended to deliver to the board two to three days prior to delivering them (Life, 1956). Rabbi Atlas remained unrepentant. At his next service he offered a defiant prayer in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was more than the increasingly irate trustees were willing to tolerate. Snubbed by his own congregation, a dispirited Atlas tendered his resignation, and gave up his career as Rabbi of the synagogue (Webb, 476).
Outside of Montgomery, but still in Alabama, other prominent members of local Jewish communities placed their lives and careers on the line to act and speak out in support of the civil rights struggle. Among them would be Samuel Lebowitz, a New York Jewish lawyer who came to Alabama to defend the nine Black youngsters accused in the Scottsboro trial. Because of Lebowitz's affiliation with a Marxist organization in New York, there was skepticism about his ability to successfully defend the accused youngsters. This skepticism was soon dashed when, after a prolonged and politically protracted appeals process, he won an acquittal for all nine defendants--spending much of his personal money in the process.
Still in the pre-civil rights era of the early 1930s, Joseph Gelder, professor of physics at the University of Alabama was a lone voice in Alabama, higher education who spoke out for racial equality by organizing to have Blacks join labor unions. For his outspokenness on such civil rights issues, he was branded communist, and brutally assaulted by the KKK. No one in the power structure--Jew or Gentile--came to his help (Bauman and Kalin, 48).
One of the local Jewish leaders who offered to be interviewed for this research is Attorney Karl Friedman, current owner of one of the largest law firms in Birmingham. Karl Friedman's law firm was established at the height of the modern civil rights movement in the 1960s, at a time when the city of Birmingham was littered with public signs that read "No Jews or Blacks allowed." Like most progressive Jews, Attorney Friedman actively spoke out in defense of the civil rights of African Americans, when he defied the segregationist laws of the day, and hired a Black female secretary in his legal practice. Indeed, his was the first law firm in the state of Alabama to hire a Black woman. When initially hired, Friedman's partners and office staff wanted to know if the secretary, Mabel Fikes, was going to be built a bathroom separate from the rest of the employees. Friedman insisted on having the Black secretary use the same bathroom as everyone else. Eventually, Ms. Mabel Fikes would go on to spend more than 30 years in the law firm, and has received awards recognizing her as the most productive staff member in the firm. For his outspokenness in integrating his law firm and supporting civil rights causes, Karl Friedman paid a personal price. To this day, his home is still lodged with bullets that were fired in a drive-by shooting, and his front yard spray-painted with the phrase, "Nigger Lover."
Elsewhere in the South, the North Carolina Association of Rabbis unanimously issued a resolution in the fall of 1957 approving "wholeheartedly and unstintingly" actions taken by school districts in North Carolina in compliance with the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling. A few months later, six Houston Rabbis followed suit and voiced their unflinching support for the school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (Southern Israelite, 1957)
This study has shown that Jewish contributions to the civil rights movement at the local grassroots level in Montgomery came in various forms. From the financial support from prominent national Jewish organizations to the Montgomery Improvement Association at the height of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to the political support that national Jewish leaders gave to Kennedy's decision to use force in the enforcement of the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in Montgomery, to the personal sacrifices that were made by individual Jewish leaders in the pre-civil rights era, Jews by-and-large were brothers-in-arms with African Americans in the frontline of the modern struggle for civil rights. Yet, despite Jewish support for the civil rights movement, sharp differences remained between northern and southern Jews over the open support of civil rights causes. While northern Jews publicly spoke out in support of civil rights causes, Jews in the south were generally reluctant to show public support for the movement.
The reluctance is explained by the fear of retribution that was latent and lurking in the throes of the majority non-Jewish population. As an identifiable minority group itself, the long history of Jewish victimization reminds us that the vulnerability of Jews to persecution has always been highest at the local level. Unlike with the larger white population, the remarks or actions of an individual Jewish Rabbi frequently ran the risk of bringing the entire weight of gentile fury to bear on all members of the Jewish community. If the same actions came from a catholic or protestant minister, they did not pose any risk of retribution against members of the Christian community. Yet, at the launching of the modern civil rights movement, "... no white minister in Montgomery had offered even tacit support for the bus boycott" (Webb, 475) except for the Rev. Robert Graetz. Rev. Graetz was a white Minister of the Negro Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery. He worked closely with Martin Luther King on two religiously affiliated local civil rights organizations--the Council on Human Relations and the all-Negro Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (King, 74; Graetz, 49-55). Yet, in the South, there were a handful of Jewish leaders who defied the odds and spoke out against the racial inequities of their time. They did so in spite of threats to their careers, to their lives, and to the lives of members of their families and congregations. That these individuals did risk their lives and careers in the struggle for racial justice certainly distinguishes them as forgotten activists in the modern civil rights movement.
From the findings raised in the present study, there are several implications for Black-Jewish relations today. While there may be episodes of rift in the history of Blacks and Jews, it does appear that there is more that unites the two communities than divides them. While contemporary political rhetoric focuses on the latter, historical evidence does seem to support the former. There is tremendous historical evidence, even into antiquity, that shows close cooperation between Blacks and Jews. Indeed, Blacks and Jews are the only two groups in the New World whose history can be traced back to the Old World. Rabbi Marc Schneier indicates that the relationship between Blacks and Jews dates back to the days of the Hebrews, pointing out that "the forefathers of Abraham were the dark-skinned Cushnites" (Shneier, 20). From biblical as well as non-biblical sources, the story of these two peoples has been told repeatedly over thousands of years. The history of any two communities of people who have interacted intimately over the years is bound to be written with the good and the bad, the lows and the highs. The lows, when they occur, should not deter increased meaningful interaction, but rather spur the exploration of creative channels that can lead the relationship back to new highs. Blacks and Jews have invested too much together to now turn away from each other. Present and future generations must continue to build on the cooperation that their Black and Jewish ancestors worked so very hard to establish. As the two most dynamic minority populations in the New World, and give, the common fate that has faced them over the years, Blacks and Jews stand to gain more by working as a united front than in working as a divided front.
This article was conducted with funding from the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture.
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John Fobanjong is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He received a doctorate in Political Science from University of Arizona and a masters in Public Administration from California Lutheran University.
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