"In 2005 the UN General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, every member state of the UN has an obligation to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.
Mining the Archives: Jews and the Civil Rights Movement
by David P. Rosenberg, Senior Reference Librarian - Collections, Center for Jewish History
Remembering Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. on the occasion of his 83rd birthday
At a fundraising event in a northern synagogue, a rabbi asked Dr. King what his sources of strength were. Dr. King responded: “You and I draw living waters from the same spring…from the belief in a God of Love, Mercy and Justice.” (p. 33 of Shared Dreams)
From the American Jewish Historical Society here at the Center: The American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry sponsored a nationwide telephone hookup on December 11, 1966, during which Dr. King supported Soviet Jews’ struggles and stated that “a denial of human rights anywhere is a threat to the affirmation of human rights everywhere.” (This recording is in the AJHS collections; click here to listen to it.)
Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: Some Examples
The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s tells the stories of some of the Jewish leaders who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. One such leader was Rabbi James A. Wax of Memphis, Tennessee. Rabbi Wax served as secretary of the Memphis Committee on Community Relations, a group that formed in 1958 and was able to desegregate public facilities so successfully that “the Kennedy administration sent observers to Memphis to study the methods used by MCCR to end segregation in public facilities with a minimum of community opposition” (p. 159). Rabbi Wax’s efforts were not limited to his immediate community; he was also active in the Tennessee Council on Human Relations and the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Shad Polier—husband of Justine W. Polier, the first female Justice in New York—was an outspoken proponent for Jews fighting for civil rights. The AJHS holds the Shad Polier papers (P-572). In addition to supporting desegregation in the matter of Brown vs. the Board of Education, Polier served as the chairman of the Commission on Law and Social Action (CLSA) group of the American Jewish Congress. Archival material offers further insight into his stance on civil rights. An article published in the Yiddish Forward (January 10th, 1965) bears the headline, “Jews must participate in the fight for civil rights says Shad Polier” (Box 9 Folder 7- Jewish Struggle for Black Civil Rights). There are also three folders in box 4 containing Polier’s correspondence with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Shad Polier was not the only Jew involved in the NAACP. In fact, according to Heeding the Call, Jews participated in the NAACP since the organization’s founding in 1909 (p. 140). Joel and Arthur Spingarn were the early chairman of the board and head of the legal committee. (p. 15 of Fight Against Fear).
When the state of Alabama tried to suspend NAACP activities using legal maneuvers, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), along with thirteen other organizations, supported the NAACP. ADL state chairman reported that the response of Alabama Jewry was “immediate and forceful.” (p. 77)
The NAACP came to the aid of Jews after a Jewish community center in Nashville was bombed, in spite of the fact that the more common reaction to the score of synagogue bombings taking place at the time was one characterized by “a certain degree of ambivalence.” The NAACP executive secretary expressed his “horror and outrage at this dastardly act” after the Nashville bombing. He addressed the Memphis NAACP chapter to urge African-Americans to offer financial support in the wake of the crime (p. 65)
A More Nuanced View of Jewish Participation
In the article “‘Hamans’ and ‘Torquemadas’: Southern and Northern Jewish Responses to the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1965” in The Quiet Voices, Marc Dollinger asks if America’s Jewish population as a whole did enough to support African-Americans’ efforts to gain civil rights. The abstract to Dollinger’s article offers a succinct statement of his claim: “…although some northern and southern Jews participated actively in a positive way, most adapted to the racial mores of the time and place and strove first and foremost for acceptance. Reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr., Dollinger implies that those who believed in racial justice and yet remained largely silent were perhaps as much if not more of the problem than the outright racists” (p. 67).
By contrast, there is evidence that some members of Jewish communities joined the fight even if it meant facing ridicule. In Fight Against Fear, there is a chapter devoted to female reformers—Jewish women who not only believed in racial justice, but also became outspoken and active in the movement to achieve it. These women were not trying to be accepted in their time and place; they were fighting to institute change.
The chapter in Fight Against Fear states that the 21st convention of the National Council of Jewish Women voted for the “immediate integration of public schools throughout the south” on March 20th 1955 (p. 147). Of the 12 organizations listed in a compilation of “Organizations Committed to a Program of Education to Prevent Lynching,” three are Jewish, including the NCJW and the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (p. 149; the list was compiled by the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching).
For many of the Jewish women active in the struggle, “the social activist doctrines of Reform Judaism served as essential inspiration” (p. 168). Rabbi James Wax said of one woman who never attended religious services, “She acknowledges that she is a Jew and there is never any pretense that she isn’t. But for her, doing good is religion” (p. 168).
The American Jewish Historical Society holds a monograph devoted to the subject: Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement. Moving photographs accompany the scholarship presented here. One depicts Rita Schwerner speaking to delegates of the Democratic National Convention on August 25th 1964. She was trying to get the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party seated at the convention. There are also photographs of Jacqueline Levine representing the American Jewish Congress in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.
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Did you miss V. Chapman-Smith’s lecture at the Center’s inaugural “Archival Leaders Advocate” event? Now you can view it online! And don’t forget to check out Rachel C. Miller’s blog post about the event here.
New from Tablet Magazine. (Diarna — an organization you’ll read about in the above article — presented at the Center’s international digital humanities conference, “From Access to Integration.” Click here to read our post about their presentation.)