Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

Old South, New South: Framing a Jewish Response

I grew up in the “Capital” of the Confederacy, Richmond.  On my office wall to this day, I have a painting entitled the “Fall of Richmond”.  The painter of this version is suggesting in this rendition that the entering Union Army under General Ulysses S. Grant actually burned the city in April 1865; in reality, the Confederate forces decided in the end to burn central Richmond in advance of the Yankee forces.

Two years ago, I offered some reflections “Growing up Southern” and in this piece I hope to build upon that statement![1]

But so much of Virginia and Southern history was presented to me as a student in the 1950’s with glaring inaccuracies and with the intent to provide a very different storyline.  Especially during the era of Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954), politicians and educators constructed a historic record designed to celebrate the past by altering the truth. This romanticized story was in part constructed to provide students with the case for segregation, to articulate the “glory of the Southern past” as my teachers would frame it, while building a defense for a “way of life”.

The “Southern Manifesto” was crafted in 1956 by Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia and would be signed by 82 House Members and 19 Senators. It represented but one of several initiatives to push back against the call for integration.[2]

 “The Manifesto attacked Brown as an abuse of judicial power that trespassed upon states’ rights. It urged southerners to exhaust all ‘lawful means’ to resist the ‘chaos and confusion’ that would result from school desegregation.”

Indeed, segregation would be alive and well throughout my time in Richmond (1942-1960).  Beyond separate schools, the retention of “colored” bathrooms, segregated parks, buses, hotels and restaurants, a political message was being constructed that sought to preserve “the Southern way of life”.  To enforce this mindset, Virginia employed a policy known as “massive resistance”, a policy of closing schools, including entire districts, in order to block attempts to integrate and to change this historical. I can remember when African American ball players came to Richmond, they were unable to stay with the visiting team mates at the “white only” hotels.

On a more personal note, I can remember as a very young kid riding on public transportation with Estelle, the woman who, outside of my folks, would be the most significant player in my early life. As a black person, she would be prohibited by law from sitting in the front section of the bus, but as a kid, I loved riding up front. I still can hear her calming voice, reminding me, “Now, Steven, we need to sit back here!” When you are with a person of color, you become part of their reality.

The War Between the States:  Even the title given to this conflict by Southern historians would be politicizing. We were reminded that this was not a “civil war” but rather it was at its core an issue of “states’ rights” according to these authorities. The war would be fought all over again on the pages of our history books in an effort to convince these young readers of the legitimacy of this cause.

Take for example the 1860 legal reasoning employed by the State of Texas when exiting the Union:[3]

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

The Confederacy and its Heroes:  I grew up with the figures of the South prominently displayed and celebrated throughout the city, after all Richmond was the capital of this enterprise. The monuments abounded across this city, as did the public schools who were named for the heroes of the South, including Robert E. Lee.

Were these figures heroes? The question itself may be problematic, as a number of these prominent Southerners made extraordinary contributions to the American political story, including earlier founding personalities of this republic, Washington, Jefferson and Madison.  In this moment where culture and personal conduct are fully being re-examined, how should we place these individuals into historical context?

Idealizing Plantation Life: School trips including former plantations and the homes of Virginia’s past heroes were a central feature of such an education.  One such visit included Sherwood Forest Plantation, the home of our nation’s tenth President, John Tyler. How were we to see these estates? Where they to be understood as a peak into a “glorious” history now lost or where we to encounter these experiences as a way to more fully understand the brutality and financial “benefits” of slavery?  Most certainly, in the 1950’s this former message would be conveyed to the many students visiting such sites, as no attention would be given to the ills and dehumanizing features of this system.

Jews as Opponents and Supporters: There were a number of prominent Southern Jews during this era, in particular rabbinic leaders who articulated the case for integration.  In 1955 Rabbi Julian Feibelman would challenge the segregation policies of the New Orleans Board of Education .  Likewise, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta used his pulpit beginning in 1947 to advance civil rights. In 1958, his synagogue would be bombed. Rothschild wrote:[4]

We can never separate our spiritual heritage from our place in the society which we have helped to create.

 Rabbi Malcom Stern served from 1947-1964 as the rabbi of Norfolk’s Ohef Sholom Congregation. During his tenure, Stern fought racism and segregation, taking positions and initiating actions that were described as “unpopular and dangerous”.[5]

But there were Southern Jews who defended the entrenched system of segregation. Houston’s Rabbi William Malev, writing in Conservative Judaism in 1958, expressed his criticism of the national Jewish defense organizations (American Jewish Congress, ADL, and the American Jewish Committee) for their efforts to push back against segregation:[6]

I reject… any claim on the part of the national “defense” organizations to impose martyrdom upon the unwilling Jews of the South. … I submit…the excessive and aggressive propaganda of the national organizations is a distinct and tragic disservice to the Jews of the South.

Recalling a news story in 1954, I had previously written:[7]

The Richmond News Leader through its high profile editor, James J. Kirkpatrick, made it quite clear in an a 1950s editorial directed toward the Jewish community in general and to the ADL in particular, cynically warning that “lox and bagels were not welcomed in the South.” The message was clear: Southern Jews ought to know their place!

Closing Thoughts:

At a moment when we are by necessity reliving and re-examining our history. How can we most effectively tell this story?  What names should be left out, but also what needs to be included, if we are to fully understand the journey we as a society are on to achieve a different level of understanding concerning the issues of race and the broader damage caused by racism and injustice?

We need to call to account those Jews who opposed integration and defended “the Southern way of life,” just as we ought to celebrate those folks who spoke out and acted upon their beliefs in opposing segregation. We are the last generation who grew up with this distorted image of the old South, and we must be among the first peoples to be a part of the charge to reconstruct a different historical accounting.

The move to cancel culture with its motif to remove all of these hate-filled symbols may produce a counter-cultural outcome. “Out of sight, out of mind” leaves us without any physical reminders of this period. Symbols provide profound and essential realities concerning such prejudicial policies and practices. The physical serves the emotional, as we recall this point in time, reminding ourselves and others its harmful and dangerous impact and legacy.

Previously, I had reflected on one particular and penetrating event:[8]

I sometimes wonder when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, made its Richmond appearance in the late 1950’s opened the evening concert with “Dixie” whether Bernstein was appealing to the cultural sensitivities and loyalties of his audience or if he was in fact making a political statement that the only place one could now hear this 19th Century celebratory piece of the “old South” would be in a concert hall, directed by this liberal, Jewish New York cultural icon.

As the American South undergoes a significant transformation, we have a responsibility, once again, to speak out against contemporary efforts to impose Jim Crow legislation, impeding the full participation of citizens in the processes of governance and to call out new forms of hate behavior directed against minorities.

[1] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/no-lox-and-bagels-wanted-here-growing-up-southern/

[2] https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1951-2000/The-Southern-Manifesto-of-1956/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/07/01/why-do-people-believe-myths-about-the-confederacy-because-our-textbooks-and-monuments-are-wrong/

[4] Gary Phillip Zola and Marc Dollinger (eds.), American Jewish History:  A Primary Source Reader, (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2014), Page 310

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malcolm_H._Stern

[6] Ibid. pages 312-313.

[7] Op.Cit.  https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/no-lox-and-bagels-wanted-here-growing-up-southern/

[8] Ibid.

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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