Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement


In the picture: Marching from Selma: John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth


When I arrived in America in 1985 with a bachelor degree in Engineering from the Technion, but without any work experience, I had a very difficult time finding a job. During this period, when I was in a new country trying to adjust to the new culture and feed the family, the people who helped me the most were African Americans. After a very difficult start, I finally landed a part-time job, working for the US Army Corp of Engineers. Two African American, building inspectors, took me under their wings. They taught me how to read construction drawings, how to inspect mechanical systems, how to write inspection reports. Our job was to drive between military bases in the Washington DC  area and in Northern Virginia, and inspect newly constructed buildings. The long hours we spent together in the government car, driving from one military base to another, was an opportunity to hear their stories about their life in the segregated South. I grew up in a different country and all this was news to me. Many years passed, I don’t remember their full names, yet, I want to take this opportunity to recognize them and dedicate the article to them and to many others like them, people who did not see me or other people as “different”, but as a people who needed help and they were willing  to do so, regardless of race or religion affiliation. 


From the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Blacks and Jews marched arm-in-arm. In 1909, W.E.B. Dubois, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Stephen Wise and Henry Malkewitz formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Jews also were the earliest supporters of the Urban League, founded in New York in 1911 to help newly arrived black migrants from the rural South. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amal­gamated Clothing Workers took the lead in organizing “our black brothers” for union membership (over the opposition of the American Federation of Labor national board). And, in the climactic civil rights drives of the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish participation was all but overwhelming.

Thus, in the 1930s and ’40s when Jewish refugee professors arrived at Southern Black Colleges, there was a history of overt empathy between Blacks and Jews, and the possibility of truly effective collaboration. Professor Ernst Borinski organized dinners at which Blacks and Whites would have to sit next to each other – a simple yet revolutionary act. Black students empathized with the cruelty these scholars had endured in Europe and trusted them more than other Whites. In fact, often Black students – as well as members of the Southern White community – saw these refugees as “some kind of colored folk.”

The unique relationship that developed between these teachers and their students was in some ways a microcosm of what was beginning to happen in other parts of the United States. The American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League were central to the campaign against racial prejudice. Jews made substantial financial contributions to many civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. About 50 percent of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as were over 50 percent of the Whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow Laws.

In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling itself, the Supreme Court accepted the research of the black sociologist Kenneth Clark that segregation placed the stamp of inferi­ority on black children. Clark’s study had been commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, and it appeared in the amicus curiae brief the Committee submitted to the court. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress also submitted amicus curiae briefs in behalf of the cause. Once the judgment was issued, these Jewish defense organizations continued to file legal briefs in civil rights cases dealing with housing, employment, education, and public accommodation. Many local and state desegregation regulations actually were drafted in the offices of the Jewish agencies.

Jews, secular and religious, were disproportionately involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Rabbis, mostly from the North and California, were particularly visible because they usually wore yarmulkes at rallies, meetings, and protests. Rabbis were part of the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington (where Rabbi Uri Miller gave the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke prior to King’s “I Have a Dream” oration), and local efforts to integrate schools and challenge racial discrimination in housing.

A handful of Southern rabbis participated in the movement. Most Southern rabbis were reluctant to be too conspicuous in light of Jews’ precarious social position in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Only a handful of Southern Jews were hard-line segregationists. Most Southern Jews were moderates on racial issues and quite a few were liberals. Some were openly supportive of civil rights and many were quietly helpful, by making financial contributions to civil rights organizations. Many Southern Jews feared that obvious Jewish activism in the movement would trigger a hostile backlash among anti-Semites, including boycotts of Jewish-owned stores and Jewish lawyers and other professionals, and violence targeted at Jewish homes.

At the height of the anti-integration effort, in 1957, Rabbi Ira Sanders of Little Rock testified before the Arkansas Senate against pending segregationist bills. Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jack­son, Mississippi, also courageously lent his support to the integration effort, as did Rabbis Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta, Emmet Frank of Alexandria, and Charles Mantingand of Birmingham. Yet these men stood well ahead of their constituencies.

Many Southern synagogues were bombed during the civil rights movement. In October 1958, for example, segregationists bombed Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, whose Reform rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was an early and outspoken supporter of racial integration and a friend of Dr. King. This and other violent incidents certainly led many Southern rabbis and congregations to fear it could happen to them if they lent their support to the movement for racial equality.

Klan groups exploited the integration crisis to launch acts of anti-Semitic violence. In one year, from November 1957 through October 1958, temples and other Jewish communal edifices were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jack­sonville, and Miami, and undetonated dynamite was found under synagogues in Birmingham, Charlotte, and Gastonia, North Carolina. Some rabbis received telephone death threats.

Jews gave extensively to African-American causes: In 1935 as many as 40 percent of black children in the South attended a school funded by William Rosenwald, whose father owned Sears, Roebuck. 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.

The pace of Jewish support for civil rights grew during the 1950s, as the issue moved into mainstream America’s field of vision and many Jews, with the horrors of Nazism fresh in their minds, grasped viscerally the moral necessity of racial justice. Along with establishment organizations like the NAACP, new groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference relied on Jewish philanthropy to stay afloat.

Jewish lawyers and activists led the charge for fair employment and open housing provisions in the north, while more than a dozen Jews traveled south to participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides. One of the demonstrating rabbis, Arthur Lelyveld, was severely beaten in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. A young physician, Edward Sachar, vol­unteering his medical services to the freedom marchers, nearly lost his life as his automobile was forced off a Mississippi back road by locals.

Jewish organizations had greeted the Kennedy Administration with optimism, but also high expectations. Kennedy had campaigned hard on civil rights, and almost immediately the American Jewish Congress and others began peppering the White House with plans to put his words into action.

In June 1961 the organization sent him an eight-point civil rights plan, including such steps as a fair-employment practices commission and an end to Jim Crow segregation. When Kennedy announced that summer that he would take a go-slow approach to civil rights legislation, the group lashed out. “The American Jewish Congress charged today that gradualism as a means of achieving racial equality had proven a ‘folly and a failure,’ ” it said in a press release.

On May 8, 1963, a plane from New York City bearing 19 conservative rabbis landed in Birmingham, Ala., which was in the midst of violent civil rights protests. Over the next two days the rabbis visited local churches, where they met with demonstrators and taught Hebrew songs. “Our people are your people,” said Rabbi Alex Shapiro of Pennsylvania. At night they stayed at the Gaston Motel, where King and other leaders had their headquarters. They left on the evening of May 9; two days later, the Gaston was bombed.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the aegis of the Leadership Conference, which for decades was located in the RAC’s building.

Arnold Aronson was one of the few white leaders involved in planning the 1963 March on Washington. in 1941 he worked with A. Philip Randolph to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, opening jobs in the federal bureaucracy and in the defense industries to minorities. A close associate of Randolph and Roy Wilkins, Aronson played an important role planning the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. In 1945 he became executive director of the National Community Relations Advisory Council, now known as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a position he retained until 1976. With Randolph and Wilkins, Aronson was a founder of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in 1950. As secretary of the Leadership Conference, he helped coordinate lobbying efforts for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. After he retired, he founded The Leadership Conference Education Fund and served as its director until his death.

Marvin Caplan became involved in efforts to desegregate department store restaurants when his family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1951. He later worked with Neighbors, Inc., a group that fought “white flight” in northwest Washington. Marvin Caplan, left his job as a reporter for Fairchild Publications to be Arnold Aronson’s right-hand man. They were two leading lobbyists on Capitol Hill during the painstaking lobbying for the passage of the Civil Rights Act actual legislation. Aronson and Caplan acted as a clearinghouse of information for the constituent organizations around the country, drumming up public interest in the bill in places like the Midwest, where there were so few blacks that race relations were practically a non-issue.

Caplan was named executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in 1963 and headed that coalition of several dozen groups until 1981; he also served as legislative director for the Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO. later became  Executive Director of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights. He developed and led the lobbying for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and Title IX’s prohibition of gender discrimination in education.

Robert Lincoln Greenberg was a freedom rider with Rev. Robert I. Miller who went on to become the first Democratic mayor of Englewood, NJ, since 1902. Bob Greenberg asked his friend, Rabbi Irwin Blank, to join in the effort to integrate eating establishments in the South. The Rabbi considered his participation a highlight of the years he served as a spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Tenafly. Rabbi Irwin Blank of the Synagogue Council of America advocated for the bill before the House Judiciary Committee.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the president of the American Jewish Congress, addressed the hundreds of thousands of people gathered that hot August afternoon on the Washington Mall just before King rose to give his famous speech, and he later joined the inner circle of civil rights leaders who met with President John F. Kennedy after the speeches were over.

On Jan. 31, 1964, a bus chartered by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations pulled up in front of the congressional office buildings on Capitol Hill. The House was preparing to debate the Civil Rights Act, and the dozens of rabbis on the bus were there to join hundreds of other liberal activists converging on Washington to lobby their congressional representatives in favor of the bill.

In 1964 three civil rights workers were murdered on the night of June 21–22 in Neshoba County, Mississippi. They were James Earl Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner from New York City, who were abducted, shot at close range and killed by members of the local White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department of that city in Mississippi. The three young men had been working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign, attempting to prepare and register African Americans to vote after they had been disenfranchised since 1890.

The disappearance and feared murders of these activists sparked national outrage and a massive federal investigation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation referred to this investigation as “Mississippi Burning”. They found the bodies of the three workers 44 days after they disappeared; they were buried in an earthen dam near the murder site. After the state government refused to prosecute, the federal government initially charged 18 individuals with civil rights violations. Seven were convicted and received relatively minor sentences for their actions. Outrage over the activists’ disappearances helped gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Rabbi Israel Dresner was once dubbed, “the most arrested rabbi in America.” Rabbi Dresner was the foremost rabbinic participant in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, and was one of the three rabbis who was closest to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King spoke on two occasions (1963 and 1966) at Rabbi Dresner’s congregation in Springfield. Rabbi Dresner was the first rabbi arrested in the freedom struggle in 1961 in an interfaith clergy freedom ride. He served for short periods as a prisoner on four occasions in southern prisons in Florida and Georgia in the years 1961-1964.

St. Augustine was the only place in Florida where King was arrested; his arrest there occurred on June 11, 1964, on the steps of the Monson motel restaurant. He wrote a “Letter from the St. Augustine Jail” to his old friend, Rabbi Israel Dresner, in New Jersey, urging him to recruit rabbis to come to St. Augustine and take part in the movement. The result was the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history; this occurred on June 18, 1964, at the Monson motel.

Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Heschel were in close touch, sharing both theological and political ideas. After the first Selma march, “Bloody Sunday,” Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the agency’s failure to protect the demonstrators. On Friday March 19, Heschel received a telegram from King inviting him to join the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel flew to Selma from New York on Saturday night and was welcomed as one of the leaders into the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The photograph of Heschel walking arm in arm with King has become iconic of the coalition of Jew.

Related Article: Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Civil Rights Movement


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