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Judi's Journal 01-14-2011

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Jews in the civil rights movement

By Judi Siegal

(Written in honor of Martin Luther King Day, 2011)

From its earliest beginnings, Jews have been involved with the civil rights movement. It is not surprising that this is so because Judaism espouses a high sense of justice and social awareness amongst its adherents. Jews believe strongly that all people have the Divine spark within them and are created in the image of God. The whole Exodus experience with the culmination of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, set the stage for the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments) that Jews are supposed to follow. And in Leviticus 24:22 the Israelites are admonished that there “Shall be one law for the stranger and citizen alike.” Subsequently, the Hebrew prophets argued for social justice and equality as well. Against this religious and ethical background, the Jews of America rallied to the call of civil rights for the Negroes.

Jews have been in the forefront of the founding of major civil rights organizations including: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (The NAACP), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It was in 1909 that Henry Moscowitz joined with other civil rights leaders to form the NAACP and Arnie Aronson worked with A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins to found the Leadership Conference. Kivie Kaplan, a vice-chairman of the Union of Reform Judaism, served as national president of the NAACP from 1966-1975.

Jewish philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, during the years from 1910-1940, helped to establish more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools including 20 colleges such as Dillard, Fisk and Howard, contributing in whole or in part for the education of blacks. During the height of the Rosenwald era, nearly 40 percent of Southern blacks were educated at Rosenwald schools.

Jews participated in civil rights demonstrations and in civil rights movements in disproportionate numbers. Jews made up of half the young people that participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 and many were arrested with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964 when a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations was raised. Most well known is the fact that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King on the famous 1965 March to Selma.

Other Jewish notables in the struggle for civil rights include Dr. Marvin C. Goldstein, who integrated his Atlanta dental office in the years right after World War II; Stanley Levenson, Dr. King’s trusted adviser and friend with whom he spoke nearly every day; and Morris Abram, crusader for fair voting practices in rural Georgia who also led the fight to “expose” the Ku Klux Klan by fighting for legislation that eventually outlawed the Klansmen marching with their hooded masks in 53 cities. Also, Allard Lowenstein who was instrumental in the 1962 voter registration drive in which civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were killed, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke after Dr. King at the 1963 March on Washington. Rabbi Prinz’s words echo down to us today: “The most important thing I learned (in Berlin under Hitler) is the bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

The American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith and the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) also were supportive of Dr. King’s work and invited him to speak in front of their groups.

As time progressed and blacks won many rights, Jewish-black relationships started to disintegrate and become strained. This was in part due to the Southern attitude of anti-Semitism and frustration of the blacks on their economic situation. Jews were able to achieve the American dream through hard work and education, while the blacks had to struggle with racism and prejudice as well as crime, family breakdown, drug addiction and alcoholism. It is this “culture of poverty” that has no counterpart in American Jewish experience, which has further alienated blacks and Jews. Militant blacks cited the Israeli treatment of the Arab population, which they consider like themselves in the sense they are people of color. (The Arabs were also part of the Slave Trade but apparently that was overlooked). These militant blacks did not necessarily represent the views of most civil rights leaders and in spite of this, Jews continued to support the civil rights movement. Dr. King was a big supporter of the State of Israel and called the world’s attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry long before it became a cause celebre in the 1980s.

As we pause to honor the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on Jan. 17, let us remember his immortal words included in the Jewish Reconstructionist prayer book as he spoke them in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Monument: “When we allow freedom to ring … we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ May we all work for that glorious day.