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  • Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: There’s more to it than you might think

    Posted on January 12th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments
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    photo from SNCC

    photo from SNCC

    Ahead of next week’s celebration of Martin Luther King and his legacy, guest blogger Julia Philips Berger pushes us to reconsider how we think about and teach the history of civil rights.   Julia has been working with the Jewish Women’s Archive to develop new approaches for teaching the history of civil rights. A graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, Julia is an education consultant residing in Orlando, FL. JuliaBerger

    Today, when most Reform synagogues have a social action committee and when legal segregation is a thing of the past, it may be hard for us to understand how some American Jews could not support and participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Over the last seven months, as I’ve worked on a high school curriculum about Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement for the Jewish Women’s Archive, I have been examining this issue and many others that highlight the complexities of Civil Rights history. Part of what I’ve learned is that only when we are fortunate enough to hold a position of power and privilege can we support the fights of others. While many Northern Jews felt safe enough and powerful enough to help African Americans in the South, many Southerners did not. Equally important is the fact that many Northern Jews felt differently when the Civil Rights Movement came to the North. In their own communities, Northern Jews did not always support bussing to integrate schools or Affirmative Action to help African Americans enter college and new business fields. These events were more immediate and more threatening to Northern Jews. The lives of American Jews in the 1950s and 1960s were complicated, so are our lives today. If we want our young people to feel connected to Judaism and continue our legacy of social justice, we need to share with them a more nuanced history that resonates with them, not a nostalgic picture of larger than life heroes who always do the right thing and make the right choices.

    Carol Ruth Carol Ruth Silver, Civil Rights activist, in Birmingham, Alabama, May 2000. From the Jewish Women's Archive.

    Carol Ruth Carol Ruth Silver, Civil Rights activist, in Birmingham, Alabama, May 2000. From the Jewish Women's Archive.

    As Reform Jews, we are proud of our legacy of social justice. The many Jews who participated in the pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement are an example of this. In addition to the general Jewish participation and the work of individual Reform activists, there was official Reform involvement in this social movement. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who escaped Nazi Germany, gave a speech at the March on Washington. Members of the CCAR and NFTY participated in this March as well, under banners proclaiming their Jewish affiliation. These are the people and events that we generally point to at this time of year or in our religious school classes. But the history of Jewish participation during the Civil Rights Movement is much more complex. And that complexity has much to teach us.

    Rabbi Joachim Prinz speaking on behalf of civil rights in Washington

    Rabbi Joachim Prinz speaking on behalf of civil rights in Washington

    While we are proud of the large percentage of white civil rights activists who were Jewish, the actual percentage of Jews who participated in the Civil Rights Movement is relatively small and the majority of these lived in the North. Many Southern Jews did not actively support the Civil Rights Movement. It was not that they didn’t believe that segregation was wrong, but that they knew that actively supporting desegregation could be dangerous. It could mean the loss of jobs or customers and clients that they could ill afford. It could mean having crosses burned on their front lawns or the bombing of their temples. Northern Jews would eventually leave the South. Southern Jews needed to live within the white Southern community, and they had done so for years by keeping a low profile. The Civil Rights Movement was not low profile, and the actions of Northern Jews reflected upon Southern Jews, exposing them to the wrath of Southern whites.

    Tensions also developed between Southern Jews and some Jewish organizations. For example, in 1956, a congregation in Mississippi wrote to the President of the UAHC expressing its feelings that segregation was neither a religious issue nor a Jewish issue, and asked the UAHC not to make statements about segregation which might be understood by others as being the views of all Jews.

    As I read these documents, I was reminded of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which explains that we need to fulfill our basic needs like food, housing, and safety before we can aspire to ideals such as tolerance. As Jews, we often think of our people, in more or less homogenous ways, despite our experience to the contrary. A number of years ago when I was a congregational educator, I learned about a child in my religious school who, upon  seeing the temple food chest full of soups, pastas, cereals, etc., wanted to know if she could bring home some of the food for her family. Her classmates and teacher were aghast and reminded her that this was where we brought food for those less fortunate than us. As her mother later told me, they were in want and truly needed the food. Sometimes, we forget that not all American Jews are middle or upper middle class.

    This month, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I hope we can have pride in the fact that our people could be found in the Civil Rights Movement. We should also feel gratitude that many of us today have the power and privilege to be able to help others, and the perception to remember that just as we don’t like it when non-Jews make simplistic statements that begin “all Jews…,” we too must remember that all Jews are not the same, and bring that varied tapestry into our teaching of the past.

    [For more information about the JWA’s new Civil Rights Curriculum and their summer institute which will teach teachers how to use these materials, go to http://jwa.org/teach/profdev/institute10/ .]

    Photo credits: http://www.ibiblio.org/sncc/http://www.joachimprinz.com/index.htm, <http://jwa.org/discover/infocus/civilrights/silver/index.html> (January 12, 2010).

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    2 responses to “Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: There’s more to it than you might think”

    1. he Civil Rights Movement was not low profile, and the actions of Northern Jews reflected upon Southern Jews, exposing them to the wrath of Southern whites.
      Green Stool

    2. I agree with Green. My family history were part of this. It saddens me to think about it.

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