It was a time of massive upheaval in the United States. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was the catalyst for social change, as African-Americans sought full integration into mainstream American society. The role of Jews in this movement was significant, as well as complex.
The segregated South became the battleground for the future of America. The bloody Civil War of the 1860s had ended slavery, but severe overt discrimination and persecution remained over the next 100 years. Under “Jim Crow” laws, black Americans were forced to adhere to separate and degrading facilities such as segregated bus seating, public restrooms, schools, and movie theaters. One of the catalysts launching the new civil rights movement came in 1955 in Alabama. Rosa Parks, a black woman sitting at her designated section at the back of a bus, was told to give up her seat to a white man who couldn’t find a spot to sit upfront. Parks refused and was subsequently arrested.
The event launched the movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. A series of non-violent protests and marches followed, often accompanied by violent reactions from police and white Southerners.
Many Jews, particularly liberal Jews from the Northern states, rallied to the cause of equal rights for black citizens. This included some religious leaders, such as Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Heschel was a religious scholar who was forced to flee Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Working in New York City, Heschel saw the civil rights issue as the struggle of his time. He was noted for joining King and other activists on the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Heschel, as well as King, believed in the collective responsibility of all in overcoming injustice.
Northern Jews made up a large percentage of white participants in the push for civil rights. One estimate put Jews at 30 percent. They rode “freedom” buses with black colleagues around the South, picketed segregated institutions, and helped register African-American voters. A large proportion of civil rights lawyers at the time were Jewish.
One of the most well-known and tragic incidents in the South was the case of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Chaney, a black Mississippian, and the two Jewish activists from the North served as volunteers for voter registration in Meridian, Mississippi. Their car was stopped on the road by Klansmen, they were murdered and their bodies dumped in a makeshift grave.
In the South, Jews and their relation to the civil rights movement were more complex. Many Jews remained unsure of their acceptance by white Southern society. Most preferred to keep a low profile politically, prompting their leaders in the community to do the same. A few prominent rabbis such as Ira Sanders in Arkansas and Perry Nussbaum in Mississippi spoke out against segregation, but many others didn’t want to draw negative attention to their congregations.
Despite their relatively low profile, Jewish communities in the South were occasionally targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1957 and 1958 Jewish communal buildings in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami were bombed and death threats sent. However, there were no injuries reported, which was more fortunate than many of their black brethren.
So Jewish participation in the civil rights movement in the American South was a mixed bag. There was much Jewish participation in the efforts to end segregation. However, much of the narrative of special ties formed between Jews and African-Americans in the struggle for black freedom was exaggerated.
In the end, the two ethnic groups would go in separate directions politically, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968. Nationalism became more prominent within both. There was a movement away from integration for African Americans as the goal and toward more economic and political independence from white society. In American Jewish circles, there was a rise in Jewish nationalism through Zionism, which escalated following Israel’s Six-Day War victory in 1967.