Among those young people who came south to help blacks during that era, fully half were Jewish.
Jewish religious values stress the importance of looking out for one’s fellow man. Tikkun olam, a tenet of Judaism, admonishes Jews to make the world a better place.
So it is not surprising that American Jews have played an outsized role in the American black civil rights movement. Many Jewish individuals and communal organizations have been deeply involved in fighting the racial segregation and discrimination that have historically been imposed upon the black community.
Jewish Contributions to Black Civil Rights
In the 1960s many young Northerners—-black and white—- travelled to Mississippi to struggle against racial segregation and to help in the drive to register black voters. This effort ultimately brought political power to Southern black communities. In the famous 1964 Mississippi Burning case, depicted in the movie by that name, two of the three young men who were murdered by white racists were Jewish.
During that era, many young blacks came to the South to work for civil and voting rights. What is not well-known is that among those young people who came south to help blacks during that time, fully half were Jewish. That statistic was reported by the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism, the political and legislative outreach arm of Reform Judaism in the United States (1). (The RAC is a prominent organization in Reform Judaism that has been around for over 60 years. They were extensively involved in civil rights efforts in the south during the 1960s and afterward.)
Jews helped to found and contributed generously to many black civil rights organizations. These included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Many of the top leaders of these groups were Jews. This included for example, Kivie Kaplan (a vice-chair of the Reform Jewish movement) who served for many years as the national president of the NAACP. The executive director of NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund was Jack Greenberg.
Jewish leaders have served on the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and on the national board of the NAACP. Arnie Aronson served as Secretary to the Leadership Conference and for years led Jewish and black civil rights leaders in advocacy that resulted in the passage of 30 civil rights laws that changed the political landscape for black Americans.
Long after the emancipation of slaves, restrictive policies denied education to American blacks in the south. Jewish philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, helped to remedy this situation. From 1910 to 1940 Rosenwald helped to fund over 2,000 black schools and 20 black colleges, including Howard, Dillard and Fisk Universities. At one point during this era, almost 40 percent of Southern blacks had been educated at one these schools.
Many rabbis and other Jewish leaders marched with Martin Luther King as he brought national attention to segregation and discrimination. Many of them were jailed and some were beaten. Elsewhere I have written about the prominent role of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Martin Luther King and other black leaders in the Selma civil rights marches of 1965. (Rabbi-Washing and Other Issues in Black-Jewish Relations, Times of Israel Blog Post, January 14, 2019.)
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are both hailed as watershed moments in black civil rights history. Both of these pieces of legislation were drafted in the conference room of the building that housed the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC. Many more civil rights laws followed in ensuing years. These laws have had an enormous impact in ensuring civil rights for the American black community. They have addressed discrimination in voting, housing, employment and public accommodations. Jews have been active participants in securing these laws and the Jewish community has provided important political support for this legislative movement.
Antisemitism in the Black Community
Eunice G. Pollack, a professor of history and Jewish studies, argued that in the early twentieth century, American Jews were leading allies in the black movement for racial justice.
But beginning in the 1960s, a new kind of radical and nationalist movement began in the black community. Leaders of this movement began what Pollack called an assault on Jews and a demonization of Israel. These leaders were grievance merchants. They saw that American blacks were what economist Thomas Sowell dubbed, a “lagging group.” Compared to whites, blacks had lower incomes, personal wealth, home ownership, and educational attainment—-disparities that exist to this day. Blacks were more likely than whites to live in impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods with poor housing, schools and services.
As has so often occurred in the history of inter-group relations, black leaders were able to build political careers with a tried-and-true formula: Blame others for the problems of their group. Jews were a vulnerable target for the blame game. From the late nineteenth to early twentieth century Jews and blacks lived in close proximity at the bottom rungs of the social and economic ladder. But Jews, with their industriousness, family values and devotion to educational achievement, soon advanced their social and economic standing. Many Blacks remained mired in their poor circumstances. Militant black leaders saw the disparities, resented them and launched an assault on the Jews as the cause of their community’s problems.
It is beyond the scope of this blog post to enumerate the many black leaders who built their careers on antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric. These leaders include Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Obama mentor Jeremiah Wright Jr., and more recently Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and members of the Black Congressional Caucus who have honored Farrakhan with invitations to Congress.
These antisemites cite the usual litany of complaints about Jews. Their claims are generally false, unbalanced and taken out of context. They include accusations that Jews have too much economic and political power; they control Wall Street and the financial system; they have grown wealthy by unfairly expropriating the wealth of ethnic and racial minorities; they swindle others; they like to be in charge; they are more loyal to Israel than to the US; they control the media, including the entertainment industry; and they seek world domination.
Farrakhan and others have promoted the myths that Jews financed the North American slave trade and that Jewish landlords and shopkeepers routinely defrauded blacks. Although Farrakhan and other black anti-Semites also rail against “white people,” they reserve a special animus toward Jews and often single them out, above all others, as abusers of black people.
What is to be made of the discrepancy between Jewish contributions to black welfare on one hand, and black antisemitism on the other? This is a crucial question in the present era, when antisemitism from all sources is exploding.
- Vorspan, A. & Saperstein, D. Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time, Union of American Hebrew Congregations Press, 1998. See pp. 203ff.