6: The Golden Age: Jewish Support for the Civil Rights Movement

Support Black Lives Matter but do not ignore the long history of Black antisemitism

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Despite the increase of Black antisemitism in the North and then the South, American Jews supported African-Americans drive to equality more than any other group in the country. Starting in the latter part of the 1940s, Jewish groups, leaders, and individuals worked towards civil rights for African Americans, mostly because they believed in liberalism, many coming from the Reform and Conservative Movements. Historian Hasia Diner noted, “Jews also felt that helping to make the United States a better place was part of their religious tradition of tzedakah, a quest for justice…. Civil rights seemed to be a perfect way to link Jewish interests and values with the crucial needs of American society.”[1] Diner believes, “Jewish agencies and organizations were committed to the civil rights goal of making the United States more democratic. They believed that a society that did not discriminate against black people would be one where Jews also felt at home. Jews regarded participation in the civil rights movement as their duty as Jews and also as an opportunity to help create a more just society.” [2]

Dinnerstein recounts about Jewish involvement in the civil rights struggle:

Despite Jewish knowledge of black animosities, no white group in America provided as much enthusiasm, organizational and financial assistance, and sincere involvement in the Civil Rights movement as they did. Jews had been among the founders and promoters of the NAACP in 1909, they had provided three presidents of the organization: Arthur and Joel Spingarn and Kivie Kaplan, and Jack Greenberg worked with Thurgood Marshall before succeeding him as counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Jews also joined and helped finance groups like the United Negro College Fund, the National Urban League, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), while wholeheartedly devoting themselves to the cause. Jews constituted a plurality of the white civil rights attorneys, more than half of the “freedom riders” of the early 1960s, and approximately two-thirds of the college students who volunteered for Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer” in 1964. Black civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Bayard Rustin of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and James Farmer of CORE recognized and appreciated Jewish involvement and assistance in their battle to achieve equality in America. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke for many knowledgeable activists when he said: “It would be impossible to record the contribution that Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom, it has been so great.” [3]

The Jewish-African American alliance began during the war years over fair employment. In 1941, Civil Rights activist and union leader A. Philip Randolph wanted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to outlaw discrimination in the defense industries to increase job opportunities for African Americans. Randolph threatened a march on Washington to push the president. In June 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 to comply with Randolph’s demands. Roosevelt started with the defense industries and expanded the executive order to end discrimination for all federal contractors. The president also “created” the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) for oversight and enforcement.

American Jews and Jewish leaders were also concerned with discrimination in employment and formed the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations Concerned with Discrimination in the War Industries. In 1944, they joined with the “newly formed” National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC). Jews and African Americans aligned together as Republicans threatened to abolish the FEPC. In 1943, Jewish labor leaders joined Randolph’s National Council for a Permanent FEPC.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the progressive Reform rabbi, American Jewish Congress, and NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) leader argued the Jewish community should continue to align themselves with African Americans to fight civil rights, a common goal. Chanes explains, “Jewish groups hardly expressed unanimous support in the 1940s for making common cause with blacks. Wise’s rationale, a rearticulating of the original reasons for Jewish involvement in the civil rights struggle, is key to understanding Jewish engagement in this area. Jews were not involved in civil rights because they were liberals — which they were — or because it was the right thing to do — which it was. What motivated Jews, rather, was Jewish self-interest. Wise and other Jewish leaders understood that the struggle for minority rights strengthened the fiber of society and benefited all minorities, especially (at the time) Jews.” [4]

In the late 1940s, American Jews worked with African Americans towards civil rights to both end prejudice and discrimination towards the Jewish community and create a “more just” America. Diner explains, “Jewish presentations of the Nazi era emphasized the suffering of the Jews juxtaposed against an admonition that Jews, and all other Americans, needed to work for a more just society. American Jewish thinking about the trauma of the recent past and the political climate of the postwar nation came together in the Jewish participation in and support of the civil rights struggle.” [5]

American Jews helped at every point in fighting for the end of segregated schools, in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education, where the court determined that “separate was not equal” not Constitutional. In 1947, Kansas housewife Esther Brown started the case in motion. Brown worked with NAACP to fight for equal schooling for children in Merriam, Kansas. The case was Webb v. Johnson County School District №90, Webb v. South Park tried by Elisha Scott for the African-American community. As Anderson recounts, “Elisha Scott took the lead in the Webb case. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 1949 that equal facilities must be provided for all children, and the Board was forced to admit black children to South Park Elementary School on the basis that the school facilities were unequal.”[6]

As the fight went further, in 1950, the American Jewish Committee hired psychologist Kenneth Clark, who authored a landmark study about how segregated schools were harming African-American children. Clark presented the study at the White House Conference on Children. NAACP referred to the study as a key piece of evidence in their case in desegregating schools.[7]

In 1961, Jewish college students went down south participating in the Freedom Rides with their African-American counterparts to integrate buses and public transportation. Two-thirds of those who participated in the Freedom Rides were Jewish. In 1964, during the Freedom Summer Jewish voting rights workers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered along with African American James Chaney registering black voters in Mississippi. Goodman and Schwerner were among a third to half of the students involved who were Jewish, who went down south to register African American voters. [8]

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, American Jewry remained very much involved in the movement. When a Southern Black Activist Marion Barry wanted to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Washington, D.C., Liz Levy offered Barry to use her congregation, Temple Sinai to start his operations in the upper northwestern part of Washington, D.C. The whole community helped Barry start-up operations of what would become a militant civil rights organization. Real estate developer and philanthropist “Charles E. Smith held fundraising dinners for Barry and the SNCC at the Jewish Community Center (JCC).” [9]

In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a professor at the Conservative Jewish Theological seminary marched arm-in-arm with Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. [10] Historian Hasia Diner explains, “Heschel believed that involvement in the civil rights movement was more than just a way to make Judaism modern. He believed that it grew out of traditional Jewish values. Just as he would not violate the Sabbath or the dietary rules, so he would not stand idly by when other people struggled for justice.” [11]

Rev. King and Rabbi Heschel admired and respected each other, and were friends fighting for civil rights. In January 1963, at National Conference on Race and Religion in Chicago, King called Heschel spoke fondly of Rabbi Heschel. In June of 1963, Rabbi Heschel sent a telegram to President Kennedy supporting civil rights legislation. Heschel wrote, “Please demand of religious leaders’ personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship G-d as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church and Synagogue have failed. They must repent. … I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

In August 1963, two months later, Heschel and a “Jewish contingent” supported King when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at Lincoln Memorial. Heschel’s “emotional” speech expressed, “Racism is Satanism, unmitigated evil.” Professor Cornell West observed Rabbi Heschel’s speech was the “strongest speech against racism by a white person since William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist and social reformer from the early 19th century.” [12] Holocaust survivor Rabbi Joachim Prinz also spoke at the March on Washington and justified his support of the civil rights movement, from his experience, “When I lived under the Hitler regime, I learned many things.”[13]

In 1965, King spoke out against antisemitism among African Americans, stating:

“How could there be antisemitism among Negroes when our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice. Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us in St. Augustine during our recent protest against segregation in that unhappy city? Need I remind anyone of the awful beating suffered by Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland when he joined the civil rights workers there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi? And who can ever forget the sacrifice of two Jewish lives, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, in the swamps of Mississippi? It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom — it has been so great.”

On March 25, 1968, Rabbi Heschel introduced King at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention. Only ten days later, James Earl Ray assassinated King ending the collaboration and alliance between African Americans and Jews towards civil rights. Heschel and King spoke of their mutual admiration for each other at the convention.

Heschel expressed:

Dark is the world for me, for all its cities and stars. If not for the few signs of God’s radiance who could stand such agony, such darkness? Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.

The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves. Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way. I call upon every Jew to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.[14]

In return, King praised Heschel on his sixtieth birthday.

Rabbi Heschel. He is indeed a truly great prophet. I’ve looked over the last few years, being involved in the struggle for racial justice, and all too often I have seen religious leaders stand amid the social injustices that pervade our society, mouthing pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. All too often the religious community has been a tail light instead of a headlight.

But here and there we find those who refuse to remain silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows, and they are forever seeking to make the great ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage relevant in this day and in this age. I feel that Rabbi Heschel is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights to guide us through these difficult days.

He has been with us in many of our struggles. I remember marching from Selma to Montgomery, how he stood at my side, and with us as we faced that crisis situation. I remember very well when we were in Chicago for the Conference on Religion and Race. Eloquently and profoundly he spoke on the issues of race and religion, and to a great extent his speech inspired clergymen of all the religious faiths of our country; many went out and decided to do something that they had not done before.[15]

King was supposed to join Rabbi Heschel for the Passover Seder. Instead, Heschel was the only Jew invited to speak at King’s funeral. [16]After King, the movement became more militant, and African American leaders blamed American Jews for fighting for civil rights so they could succeed while leaving African Americans to still fight for social, economic, and political equality.

Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights legal and political fight led to a downturn of Black antisemitism in the latter part of the 1940s through the mid-1960s. Animosity did not disappear, however, the cause was too important. African Americans did not let tensions take their eye away from the prize, especially since Jews “shared their goals and bankrolled their cause.” [17] While African American leaders embraced Jewish involvement, the average African American might not have loved Jews still, they would not do anything against them publicly.

Still, despite Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights movement, there were contentions between the two groups. African-Americans resented American Jews taking leadership roles and taking charge, which led to “resentment and animosity.” Philadelphia AJC director Murray Friedman wrote, “There was an alliance, but side by side much tension which Jews tended to ignore but Blacks clearly recognized.” Part of the motivation was Tikkun Olam. Dinnerstein explains, “There is an ethical component in the Jewish faith and a tradition of social justice in the Jewish culture that is strong even though the rhetoric and behavior of some Jews belie the existence of these values.”[18] There was a common interest between both groups to get civil rights legislation passed. Jewry saw it as a way to end antisemitism they too experienced. A majority of Jews supported civil rights legislation.

There were exceptions; some civil rights leaders and staff were suspicious of Jewish motives as self-serving, hypocritical, and resented their “take-charge attitudes.” [19] Historian Cheryl Greenberg seems to agree American Jews saw the benefits of fighting for civil rights legislation. Greenberg explains, “The meeting of the minds regarding the civil rights agenda emerged from a clear, explicit self-interest. Jews realized that their self-interest rested in making sure that the United States didn’t discriminate against anybody. History showed them that if anybody went first, Jews were sure to come next.”[20] Diner points out, “Stories about Jewish participation in the civil rights movement tell of a time when American Jews seemed to be at the forefront of the most important and exciting changes in society. Jews today look back on the 1950s and 1960s as a kind of “golden age” when barriers from the past fell rapidly and Jews had access to neighborhoods, jobs, and educations that their parents could never have attained or even imagined.” [21]

The most resentment came from local NAACP chapters. African American journalists tried to bolster support from the community for Jews involved and supporting civil rights. In 1958, Louis Martin of the Chicago Defender wrote, “No other minority in American life, including ourselves, has fought more vigorously or more effectively against prejudice and bigotry than the Jews.” In 1960, the Pittsburgh Courier tried to point out the NAACP survived because of Jewish support. The Courier wrote in an editorial, “Not only have Jews stuck their necks out for us, they have fought gallantly and intelligently for social justice for everybody. The Jews are a people to be emulated, not despised.” [22]

Animosity towards Jews continued to rise from the African American base, and by the mid-sixties, antisemitic attitudes publicly returned. Dinnerstein recounts:

“Polls taken from the 1960s through the 1990s consistently found African Americans more antisemitic than American whites. In a 1964 analysis, 47 percent of blacks compared to 35 percent of whites scored high on antisemitic beliefs; in 1981, one of five whites and two of five blacks were found to be antisemitic; and in 1992 Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., director of the Afro-American Center at Harvard University, wrote that African Americans, especially the younger and better-educated adults, were twice as likely to be antisemitic as their white counterparts.” [23]

In the 1960s, resentment towards Jews came from African Americans, who migrated north from the South; they shared Southern antisemitic attitudes towards Jews, “an amazingly high percentage of antisemitism, reflecting some of the white attitudes of that region.” [24] Young leaders were also more militant than the tempered and grateful leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Malcolm X, who was a member of the Nation Islam was the worst in his comments against Jews, and had said he “thought that the six million Jews annihilated by Hitler ‘brought it on themselves.’” [25] The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 in Detroit in 1930 by Fard Muhammad, who claimed he was “Allah incarnate.” His successor Elijah Muhammad preached to his disciples that Blacks are the superior race. NOI gained prominence when with the Black Power movement starting when Malcolm X became the NOI’s spokesmen in the 1950s and early 1960s, although he left the group in 1964, he died a year later. Since its founding, it has been a racist and antisemitic organization. [26]

Leaders of the NAACP, the Urban League, CORE, ADL, AJC, and the American Jewish Congress avoided the rising Black antisemitism because each group needed the other to ensure passage of the Civil Rights Act. Tensions exploded when the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 failed to immediately improve the African American social and economic position. American Jews immediately benefitted from the Civil Rights Act because they had the education needed. African-Americans lagged because of the continued equality led to more limitations on them than any other minority group in the country.

[1] Hasia R. Diner, Jews in America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 120.

[2] Ibid., Diner, Jews in America, 121.

[3] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 208.

[4] Chanes. “Blacks and Jews in America: History, Myths, and Realities.” #https://www.bjpa.org/search-results/publication/2181

[5] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654–2000, 265.

[6] James Anderson, and Dara N. Byrne, The Unfinished Agenda of Brown V. Board of Education, (Hoboken, N.J: J. Wiley & Sons, 2004), 35, 36; Mark V. Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936–1961, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 139.

[7] Diner, Jews in America, 122.

[8] Ibid., Diner, Jews in America, 123.

[9] Ibid., Diner, Jews in America, 123.

[10] Ibid., Diner, Jews in America, 121.

[11] Ibid., Diner, Jews in America, 122.

[12] https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-how-john-lewis-became-a-hero-for-american-jews-1.5486413

[13] Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654–2000, 265.

[14] https://www.beaconhebrewalliance.org/blog/voice-prophets

[15] https://www.beaconhebrewalliance.org/blog/voice-prophets

[16] https://www.jta.org/1998/01/13/archive/focus-on-issues-heschel-and-king-two-visionaries-are-linked-again-2

[17] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 209.

[18] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 208–209.

[19] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 209.

[20] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/23/494790016/black-jewish-relations-intensified-and-tested-by-current-political-climate

[21] Diner, Jews in America, 123.

[22] Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 209.

[23] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 209–10.

[24] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 210.

[25] Ibid., Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, 210.

[26] https://www.adl.org/resources/profiles/the-nation-of-islam

About the Author

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, & historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval & Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.



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Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.