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« Korean Female Warriors: The New Military | Main | Social Security: A Failure? A Negative Entitlement? »

Jews in the Civil Rights Movement

By Angelo Lopez
January 27, 2011

Last December I went with my wife to Alabama and Georgia to explore a part of the United States that I didn't know about. I have this plan that before I die, I want to visit all 50 states in this wonderful country. So far I've visited fourteen states. In Birmingham I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. While we were listening to one of the curators at the Institute, I learned about something that I had never known before. While we talked about the campaigns in the South in the 1960s, she mentioned the important role that Jews had in the Civil Rights movement. My close friend, Jan Lieberman, had told me that her rabbi had taken part in the marches, but I didn't realize the extent to which Jews had taken part in the fight for civil rights. I decided to check out some books in the library to learn more.

The book Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World by Rabbi Sidney Schwarz details the importance the Jewish community places on social justice. It details the long history of collaboration between Jews and African Americans in their shared fight against discrimination.

From 1920 to 1940, Julius Rosenwald personally underwrote the building and development of more than 2,000 primary schools and secondary schools for African American children and 20 black colleges. Joel Spingarn was one of the founders of the NAACP, serving as chairman of its board from 1913 to 1919, its treasurer from 1919-30, its second president from 1930 until his death in 1939.

In the 1940s Arnold Aronson partnered with A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins to found the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). The LCCR fought for 3 decades for civil rights, spearheading the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Other Jews played prominent roles in the LCCR: Marvin Caplan was the LCCR Washington director, William Taylor headed up its civil rights enforcement division, and Joseph Rauh was general counsel.

In the 1950s the American Jewish Committee commissioned black psychologist Kenneth Clark to do a study on the impact of segregation on African American children. Clark's study was cited in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown Versus Topeka Board of Education that led to the desegregation of America's schools. The legal department of the American Jewish Congress fought for legislation to fight employment discrimination in twenty states. The Anti-Defamation League had many educational programs to fight racial and religious discrimination.

Jewish presence in the Civil Rights movement was especially important. Rabbi Schwarz wrote:

Jewish involvement in the civil rights struggle also went deep. It is estimated that thousands of Jewish students made their way to the Sough during the 1960s, joining efforts being coordinated by a variety of organizations to arrange sit-ins and marches to desegregate transportation and schools and to register voters. One-third to one-half of the Freedom Riders in the summer of 1961 were Jewish and a similar percentage of Jews took part in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 (during which Goodman, Scherner, and Chaney were murdered). Harder to measure, but clearly affecting thousands of more Jews growing up in this era, was the widespread sympathy Jews felt for the civil rights struggle. Rabbis preached about civil rights from their pulpits. Jewish periodicals carried articles about the justice of the cause. Many of the activists interviewed for this book trace their earliest feelings for social justice to hearing their parents talk about Martin Luther King Jr., and the movement for civil rights as a moral calling. In 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the president of the American Jewish Congress and a refugee from Nazi Germany, was one of the speakers who addressed 250,000 people at the March on Washington. It was the same stage from which, minutes later, Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his historic "I Have A Dream" speech. To the extent that one of the great accomplishments of the civil rights movement was making de facto discrimination illegal, the organized Jewish community threw all of its political muscle behind the passage of the era's two most important pieces of civil rights legislation- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The book Lift Up Your Voice Like a Trumpet: White Clergy and the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements, 1954-1973 by Michael B. Friedland, In 1961, rabbis joined Reverand William Sloane Coffin and a group of Protestant clergy on an integrated freedom ride from South Carolina to Tallahaseee, Florida. In 1963, SCLC minister Walter Fauntroy organized 19 Conservative rabbis to fly to Birmingham to support civil rights. These rabbis were applauded by the African American Baptist churches that they visited in Birmingham. In 1964, Rabbis Eugene Borowitz, Balfour Brickner, Israel Dresner, Michael Robinson and other rabbis from New York and New Jersey joined SCLC's Fred Shuttlesworth in civil rights efforts in St. Augustine, Florida and spent time in jail for their efforts.

During the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, many Jews risked their lives to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi. Among the 235 clergy who took part in this effort was Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld of Cleveland, Michael Robinson of New York, and Perry Nausbaum of Jackson, Mississippi. The risks that these people took became apparent with the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer on June 1964 and the attack on rabbi Arthur Lelyveld by two white men with iron pipes on July 10, 1964.

One of the most prominent Jews in the Civil Rights movement was Abraham Joshua Heschel. Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Warsaw-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century. Heschel had taught the Talmud in Germany but emigrated when the Nazis rose to power. Heschel's sister Esther was killed in a German bombing. His mother was murdered by the Nazis, and two other sisters, Gittel and Devorah, died in Nazi concentration camps. The death's of these family members had a profound effect on Heschel's sense of social justice and it played a part on his joining the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

The writings of the Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah moved Heschel to join the civil rights movement. On January 14, 1963, Heschel delivered the keynote speech to the National Conference on Religion and Race, an assembly of 657 clergy that emphasized the responsibility of churches to work to end racial discrimination within their own houses of worship and in the larger society. In the Metropolitan Conference on Religion and Race in New York City on February 25, 1964, Heschel delivered another speech demanding sanitary housing, better schools, and employment opportunities for the African American community. In 1965 Heschel joined Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, James Forman and other civil rights workers in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Until recently, I had not known of the extent of the Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights movement. The alliance between these two discriminated groups is an example for other groups today. As immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community all face discrimination, it would be good for all these groups to look at the example of the alliance of African Americans and the Jewish community in their fight to be included as equal members of American society. Michael Friedland wrote of the importance of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it could also apply to all the other Jews who have participated in the civil rights battles. Friedland wrote:

The rabbi's influence in the civil rights movement, and especially the antiwar movement, was also significant. Heschel helped serve as the linchpin to the moderate religious wings of both, counting among his close friends Martin Luther King Jr., Coffin, Brown, and Daniel Berrigan, all of whom, like himself, had devoted much of their lives to the struggle for civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam. Daniel Berrigan, despite their differences on Israel, had high praise for his rabbinical friend and paid tribute to his Jewish colleague in eloquent words that Heschel the writer would have appreciated. Speaking of the "unique affection" he had for Heschel, who was a father figure to him, Berrigan wrote, "(his) image endures, far deeper than a patriarchal beard, an Old World graciousness." He was, in Berrigan's words, "an ancestor of the spirit."

A vimeo video of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke in the March in Washington in 1963

Prinz: The Courage to Speak from R Squared Productions on Vimeo.

Two youtube videos on the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer on June 1964

Two youtube videos of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Comments (1)

Diane Author Profile Page:

Angelo--Your research on this topic is impressive. Thanks for doing the work to bring to light this forgotten part of our history.


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