Jews in the Civil Rights Movement

Working to extend America's freedoms.

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Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.

Nowhere did Jews identify themselves more forth­rightly with the liberal avant-garde than in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It was an uneven identification. For Jews living in the South, the issue of racial integration posed unsettling questions. They constituted barely one percent of the region's total population. Among their white neighbors, they had long been accepted as "honorary white Protestants."

Even Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi was prepared to draw distinctions between Northern Jews and "good" Southern Jews. The latter were circumspect, in any case, unprepared to question the South's social order.civil rights memorial

But in 1954 that social order was challenged head-on. It was then that the United States Supreme Court rendered its judgment in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down racial segregation in public schools. Within the next dozen years, as a series of federal laws and court orders shattered every legal support of racial segregation, Southern Jews faced an agony of indecision. A very small number responded by joining the ardent segregationists. They were entirely atypical of Jews even in the Deepest South.

Black-Jewish Relations in the South

As far back as the 19th century, Jewish storekeepers were virtually the only Southern merchants who addressed black customers as "Mr." and "Mrs." and permitted them to try on clothing. By the early 20th century, a few Southern Jews even ventured to speak out against the evils of white supremacy. In 1929, Louis Isaac Jaffe, editorial writer for the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot won the Pulitzer Prize for his denunciation of lynching and the reactionary Harry Byrd political machine.

Julius Rosenwald chairman of Sears Roebuck, contributed more generously in behalf of Southern blacks than did any philanthropist in American history. Rosenwald was Chicagoan, but his munificence was continued by his daughter, Edith Stern of New Orleans, whose Stern Family Fund in later years contributed vast sums to civil rights activities in the South. It was known, too, that Southern Jews privately tended to be more liberal on the race issue than Southern gentiles, and often quietly provided manpower and funds for civil rights causes.

Yet, away from large, modern cities like Atlanta and New Orleans, Southern Jews felt obliged to walk a narrow line. Most were merchants, dependent on the good will of their neighbors. In the Deep South, if they hesitated to join White Citizens Councils, they felt the pressure immediately. "The money dried up at the banks and loans were called in," recalled a Jewish storekeeper "If you had a restau­rant, linen was not picked up. If you owned a store, the local police could play havoc with you on the fire laws."

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.