20 Jan 2010

Sample Essay: Southern Jews And Blacks In The Civil Rights Struggle

Introduction

The first groups of Africans and Jews reached North America by ship in the 1600s, separately and under differing conditions. The first twenty Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 as bound or indentured servants, to work for a predetermined time before receiving freedom. Other small groups followed. By 1654 when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, the city we today know as New York, the black population there numbered about sixty. Along the Hudson River, outside of the settlement, large Dutch-owned farms were cultivated by black slaves. The Dutch mainly treated blacks humanely and with a sense of personal rights which vanished when the English took over the rule of New Netherlands in 1664. Under Dutch rule, a number of bound blacks were given their freedom along with large tracts of land, including much of today’s Greenwich Village, where they built homes, farmed, and conducted their businesses. By the mid-1600s slavery was legalized in most English colonies in North America and the number of imported black slaves increased. At the same time there were a number of free blacks in the North who were either freed by their owners or who had bought themselves out of slavery.

By 1700 the slave population in North America was estimated at 28,000. Twenty-three thousand were located in the South where the expansion of agricultural businesses on vast plantations made slave labor a valuable economic necessity. By 1790, the number of blacks had grown to over 750,000, comprising nearly 20 percent of the total American population, then estimated at four million.[1] The vast majority of them were slaves on southern plantations where, as a result of Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the need for slaves dramatically increased. Less than 9 percent of American blacks were free, living mainly in the North where slavery fell out of favor. It was abolished in Rhode Island in 1774, in Vermont in 1777, and Massachusetts in 1783; other northern states followed. When the Declaration of Independence was written, the words “All men are created equal” did not apply to blacks. Although there was some anti-slavery activity in northern states during this period, most southerners considered their slaves not as fellow citizens but as property.[2] Yet, in the Revolutionary War, nearly 10,000 blacks served under George Washington to defeat the British.

In contrast, the Jewish population of North America in 1790 was estimated at 2,000. In 1654, the first Jewish settlers arrived in New Amsterdam on board the Saint Catherine, penniless but free. They were escaping religious persecution in Brazil which had been recaptured by the Portuguese from the Dutch. Their welcome by Governor Peter Stuyvesant and the leaders of Dutch New Amsterdam was less than cordial. Stuyvesant immediately wrote to his directors in Holland objecting to the newcomers and asking permission to prohibit any further Jewish arrivals, but the refugees intended to stay and sought the support of other Jews in Holland, some of whom were shareholders in the Dutch West Indies Company.

Those first twenty-three Jewish settlers were not content to lead their lives according to selective rights handed to them. From the beginning they insisted on and ultimately received the same rights and benefits accorded to other residents. Leading their fight for equal rights was the fearless and outspoken Asser Levy, one of the original twenty-three Jewish travelers on the Saint Catherine.

Levy, impoverished upon arrival, was stubborn and proud. He eventually succeeded in obtaining permission to become a butcher with a provision which did not require him to sell pork products in respect of his religious beliefs. His determined fight for equal rights did not make him unpopular among many of his Christian neighbors. They respected his integrity and often turned to him for advice and help. Because the small colony was in constant danger of attack, every able-bodied man over the age of sixteen was required to serve in the militia. Most Jews grumbled and complained among themselves. Asser Levy decided to take action. He refused to pay the unfair tax and on November 5, 1655, he and Jacob Barsimson, another Jewish settler, presented a petition to the Council. On November 29, 1655, a petition signed by Abraham de Lucena, Salvador Dandrada, and Jacob Cohen requested permission to trade, like other residents, anywhere within New Netherlands, the province of which New Amsterdam was a part.

The America of Levy’s time and the colonial period which followed experienced a rapid growth in the number of black slaves. By the middle of the eighteenth century, black slavery was a fundamental part of the national economy. The slave trade between North America and Africa involved many people of many nationalities and religions on both sides of the Atlantic.[3] The census of 1839, for example, discovered that over 3,500 blacks, mainly in southern states, owned slaves. In contrast, the role played by Jews (who were an almost immeasurable minority of Americans) in the slave trade was inconsequential. The noted historian, Jacob Marcus, wrote in The Colonial Jew that Jewish businesses imported less than 2 percent of black slaves to America. Jewish involvement paled in comparison to the involvement of Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics.

As more Jews migrated to America they tended to adopt the cultural ways of the established white community. New arrivals busied themselves with earning a living, raising families, and simply surviving in an alien land with alien customs. Jews remembered their unfavorable treatment in Europe and tended to keep a low profile and follow the practices and thoughts of their Christian neighbors. In the North, they were largely opposed to slavery. In the South, Jews owned slaves in the same proportion as their southern white Christian neighbors. By the middle of the eighteenth century, slavery played a key role in the South’s developing economy. There were slaves in all thirteen colonies. Yet, by the time the Civil War erupted in 1861 over 90 percent of blacks were located in the South, most as slaves on large plantations. The Jews who came to America had experienced rampant discrimination in Europe. In Western Europe they were granted legal equality with their Christian neighbors only after the French Revolution of 1789. But the granting of legal rights could not erase centuries of anti-Semitism, even in the New World which offered hope of a better life but where Jews kept a wary eye open for signs of any reemergence of anti-Jewish sentiment.

This pattern of national policy elites responding to protests and disorders in the streets rather than routine lobbying or litigation also characterized the enactment of the other major civil rights bills of the 1960s. Although President Johnson had in 1965 instructed the Justice Department to begin drafting voting rights legislation, the violence and brutality of the authorities at Selma during the demonstrations led by King resulted in earlier-than-planned submission of the legislation, a n any event, the civil rights movement came to an end in the middle 1960s. After more than a half century of lobbying, litigation and protest, the basic goals of the Afro-American freedom struggle as articulated in the 1905 Niagara Manifesto had been achieved.[4] With the passage of the basic civil rights laws the movement was at a crossroads; A. Phillip Randolph, its elder statesman, said it suffered from a “crisis of victory.” Simply put, although the movement had achieved its fundamental goal of equal rights under law, blacks still were not equal in fact, as the long-standing problems of racism and poverty in the big city ghettos (dramatically manifested two weeks after signing of the Voting Rights Act by the Watts riot) now became the principal consideration.

In 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, Rabbi Richard Winograd, interim director of University of Chicago Hillel, journeyed to Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial segregation. Local African American leaders hailed the rabbi as a man committed to high moral ideals, but the Jewish community opposed Winograd’s effort and criticized him for his high-publicity venture.[5] The Chicago Hillel director understood that in the South public support for black equality threatened to undo generations of peaceful coexistence between southern Jews and their white neighbors. Jews south of the Mason-Dixon Line lived in a climate of fear and intimidation. Synagogue bombings, threats of economic boycott, and violence directed against civil rights workers convinced most southern Jews to follow less confrontational strategies. A 1961 poll, for example, revealed that 97 percent of the northern Jewish population registered its approval for the landmark Brown decision whereas a substantial 40 percent of southern Jews considered the ruling “unfortunate.” A majority of southern Jews believed that desegregation was moving too quickly and criticized “Yankee agitators” and “northern do-gooders” for interfering. Southern Jews had been acculturated into an American culture foreign to their northern coreligionists. They belonged to the South, and if they wanted to succeed in their America, they had to remain sensitive to the attitudes of those in the surrounding community.

Winograd’s Alabama experience captured the complex and sometimes contradictory Jewish attitudes toward the civil rights movement. On one hand, the rabbi’s visit demonstrated northern Jewish commitment to racial equality. Scores of Winograd’s rabbinic colleagues and thousands of lay Jews punctuated their support for the civil rights movement by traveling south and participating in rallies, marches, and political protests. On the other hand, by empathizing with the painful moral dilemma facing southern Jews, Winograd defended more than just his Birmingham coreligionists: he offered an unwitting defense for a northern Jewish community caught in its own debate concerning the wisdom of civil rights reform in the South and later in the North.[6] Despite the impressive public efforts of many Jewish liberals in the civil rights struggle, even northerners wavered in their commitment to racial equality. Between 1945 and 1954 northern Jewish support for racial equality could best be described as ambivalent. In the decade after the Brown decision, northern Jews balanced their commitment to the civil rights movement against their desire to succeed in segregated suburban hometowns.[7] The confrontation in Birmingham represented more than just intra-religious squabbling over the best civil rights strategy: it revealed how southern and northern Jews linked their own successful acculturation to the legal status of the nation’s African American minority.

The story of southern Jews and the civil rights movement begins with the Jews’ distinctive acculturation in the American South. In the antebellum period German Jews settled throughout the South, establishing themselves as leaders in merchandising and trade. They adapted to the larger non-Jewish white community, enjoying both material prosperity and social acceptance. As late as the 1940s the South boasted the lowest rate of anti-Jewish discrimination in the country. Although incidents such as the Leo Frank hanging in 1915 kept them aware of their own marginality, southern Jews escaped most of the ideological anti-Semitism that swept the urban North and the agricultural Midwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Maintaining good relations with the surrounding white community proved crucial to the physical as well as economic well-being of southern Jews. Geographic and demographic factors insulated northern Jews from much of the ugliness of racial politics, but southern Jews lived a more vulnerable existence. In 1964 Jews in Birmingham, Alabama, numbered only 4,000 among an overall population of 630,000.

Southern Jews counted themselves as sons and daughters of Dixie and remained recalcitrant. In Jackson, Mississippi, for example, they assimilated to such a large degree that their rabbi considered them “indistinguishable in ideology” from the surrounding community and “as racist as any white non-Jew.” Montgomery Jews advertised their affiliation with the White Citizen’s Council “in an attempt to show that they are at one with the majority viewpoint in the Gentile community.”[8] They claimed that their actions sought “to inhibit the growth of anti-Semitism.” The local Jackson newspaper boasted that “today many a fine Jewish leader is part of the southern resistance. Jackson’s citizen’s council, outstanding in South and Nation, points to them with pride.” Even rabbis from long-established southern families defended the distinctive “southern way of life,” took issue with northern Jewish critics, and defended the racial status quo. Other southern Jews, many of whom had only recently moved from the North, pressed for change.

In the rabbinic community some championed the civil rights cause at great risk to themselves, their families, and their congregations. Others distinguished between what they called a private commitment to racial equality and their public responsibility to protect their synagogue membership from the considerable wrath of the larger white community. In all cases, southern Jews faced the difficult task of choosing between racial equality for blacks and their own physical, economic, and social well-being. Incidents of anti-Semitism remained rare through the end of World War II, but by the 1950s the association of northern and some southern Jews with the civil rights movement precipitated an increase in violent anti-Semitism. At Temple Beth-El in Charlotte, North Carolina, eleven sticks of dynamite were found in November of 1957. Within eight months similar incidents occurred in Gastonia, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama. On 16 March 1958 Miami’s Beth-el Congregation rocked as a bomb exploded, and the congregation’s rabbi, Abraham Levitan, received threats not to preach about integration. Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta acknowledged that a bombing of his synagogue in October 1958 occurred in part “because I was so obviously identified with the civil rights movement.”

Although most non-Jewish white civil rights leaders in the South condemned the bombings, they did little to alleviate fears within the southern Jewish community. Bombings waned in 1959 but increased again in the 1960s. In addition to threats of Jews who espouse and defend the cause of civil rights jeopardize the security of isolated Jewish communities in the South, threaten their social integration and economic position, and ultimately even their physical safety.” “The Jew in the South,” one rabbi explained, “despite his long residence in the area and the high place he has attained in communal life, remains insecure.” When pressed on the civil rights question, he explained that “the vast majority, however doubtful they may be about the morality of segregation, will neither express integrationist sentiments nor identify themselves with an integrationist movement.”[9] Southern Jewish survival demanded acceptance of the status quo.

Nevertheless, by adopting the racial attitudes of the larger white society, southern Jews invited criticism from the African American community. When asked about the role of southern Jews in the civil rights movement, Aaron Henry, Mississippi’s NAACP director, explained that “the image of the Jew in national civil rights activity has not rubbed off on the Jewish population of Mississippi”[10]. There is little difference, if any, between the Gentile White and the Jew in their treatment of the Negro. For Henry the indifference of southern Jews to racial equality was the greatest surprise of my civil rights career. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth condemned southern Jews for refusing to use their considerable economic power to help end segregation. Few scenes evoked as much fear and hostility in southern Jews as the sight of northern Jews proclaiming their support for the civil rights movement. Even those southern Jews who offered private support for racial equality objected to the high-profile tactics of their northern coreligionists, especially when those tactics were planned with no thought for the precarious position of the local Jewish community.

Northern Jewish participation in the freedom rides threatened local southern Jews. At a time when even some African Americans protested the confrontational tactics of the freedom riders, southern Jews trembled at the thought of white reprisal. In many places freedom riders faced physical assault from angry whites, and in the worst scenes, segregationist’s lit fire to freedom buses, forcing protesters to flee for their lives. While the buses would continue rolling from town to town, many argued, the local citizenry remained to face the ire of segregationist whites. After southern law enforcement officials arrested scores of freedom ride protesters, dozens of northern Jews sat in southern jails awaiting trial. The northern civil rights movement gained momentum in the wake of wide-scale demographic changes in the African American community. Between 1950 and 1960 the black population of New York increased 46 percent. Chicago recorded its gains at 65 percent, and in Philadelphia the black population grew 41 percent. Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Milwaukee all experienced similar increases. By 1960 nine million African Americans, half of the U.S. black population, resided outside the eleven southern states. New York counted one million black residents. Chicago and Detroit boasted respective African American populations greater than Atlanta and Birmingham. The majority of American blacks lived in urban centers, and whites outnumbered blacks in the suburbs by a ratio of thirty-five to one.

Conclusion

National Jewish self-defense organizations feared the conflict created by the northern civil rights movement. In St. Louis a local federation executive affirmed that the covert discrimination typical of northern communities was, still very much a part of the attitudes and feelings of the white population generally. Nathan Edelstein of the American Jewish Congress worried in 1960 that the increased contact between blacks and Jews had “been largely ignored [by the Jewish community] and its implications are not too well understood. Today, as the urbanized Negro reaches out for the better things of life–better housing, better schools, and “John Slawson of the American Jewish Committee explained,” the whites with whom he competes are often Jews. Attempts to inspire widespread Jewish interest in the northern civil rights movement failed. As early as 1961 the American Jewish Congress labored to solve the northern segregation crisis in a way that respected the needs of both blacks and Jews. The Civil Rights movement emerged in the decade when the transformation of the African American community from a rural peasantry to an urban proletariat was being completed. Thus the characteristic feature of Black oppression had already substantially shifted away from legal discrimination to de facto segregation. Therefore, at the point of its greatest achievements, the movement was in crisis. The 1963-65 period was critical for the changes taking place in several crucial factors affecting the African American social mobilization. Economically, the indicators of racial advancement for the period 1960-63 described urban recession and stagnation.

Northern urban ghettos swelled with “street people” and many African Americans were forced into the marginal sectors of a racially divided labor market. The decline in their standard of living offset the substantial but one-shot gains achieved by the final generation of Black people making the transition from southern rural life to the urban ghettoized Black people For Black people long resident in northern cities, little or no perceivable progress was made in the economic dimension of racial inequality. Some urban inhabitants responded to this obstacle by rebelling violently against ghetto conditions.

Support at the federal level began to change with the emergence of the White “backlash.” The Vietnam War made policymakers doubt that they could afford racial democracy at home while funding major military efforts abroad. The monopoly of the nation’s attention enjoyed by the Civil Rights movement disappeared as rival movements emerged around opposition to the war, feminism, and student power issues.

Organizational strength was affected by the dramatic growth in membership and the geographic diffusion of the Civil Rights movement. As previously inactive classes and groups attempted to establish a relationship with the movement, old organizational forms, agendas, and leadership styles proved inadequate to the new demands placed upon them. Major Civil Rights leaders disagreed over whether full access to political power had been achieved. While the opportunity to participate in nonviolent direct action was an important part of the process of psychologically redeeming southern Blacks, the Civil Rights movement generated no specific demands relevant to the protection and enhancement of the cultural identity of the African American. In fact, the American Dream had always been identified with Anglo-conformity and therefore it clashed.

References

  1. Robert C. Smith, Ronald W. Walters (1996) We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era, State University of New York Press. Albany, NY.
  1. Glenn T. Eskew (1997) But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle, University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC.
  1. Kay Mills (2004) Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS. Publication
  1. James R. Ralph Jr (1993) Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement, Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA.
  1. Peter B. Levy (1998) The Civil Rights Movement, Greenwood Press. Westport, CT.
  1. Robert Weisbrot (1990) Freedom Bound: A History of America’s Civil Rights Movement, W. W. Norton.: New York.

[1] Pete Daniel, Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 179-305.

[2] John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 46.

[3] Report on WLBT coverage of the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s, submitted as a Lamar exhibit, personal files of Richard Sanders.

[4] “Mobilizing and Utilizing Our Resources for Full Citizenship,” Fall 1958, box 48, file VI 152, and W. L. Hamilton to Friend of Civil Rights, October 24, 1958, box 48, file VI 153, King Papers, BU.

[5] Chafe Civilities and Civil Rights, pp. 98-141.

[6] Garrow, Bearing The Cross, pp. 130-31, 135, 162; Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul, pp. 66, 70. The figures are from Branch, Parting The Waters, pp. 574-75.

[7] Carson, In Struggle, pp. 58-60; Zinn, SNCC, pp. 128-30; Anderson, “Reflections,” p. 8.

[8] Leighton, “Birmingham, Alabama: The City of Perpetual Promise” (which Leighton published in Five Cities, pp. 100-139); Woodward, Origins of the New South, pp. 300-301.

[9] Mark K. Bauman and Arnold Shankman, “The Rabbi as Ethnic Broker: The Case of David Marx,” Journal of American Ethnic History 2 (Spring 1983): 51-52

[10] BN, October 14, 17, 1958; Eskew, “The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights,” pp. 36-37.

12 Nov 2008

Essays on Closing Societies

Events of recent history are an exercise lesson in the meaning of an ancient Chinese Curse:  “May you live in interesting times.”  Events in the world, technological, social and political, are leading us towards an unprecedented string of closing societies.  Closing societies are characterized by increasingly harsh penal institutions, dramatic curtailment of social and political rights, a rapid decline in governmental accountability, and deliberate programs to quell any protests against these changes.

 

We have seen many closing societies over the past century come and go, but never without serious and lingering consequences.  In the 1920s to 1940s, we saw three such examples of closing societies unfold:  Nazi Germany, Hirohito’s Japan, and Mussolini’s Italy.  The closing of these societies and their subsequent imperialistic motivations were the primary cornerstone that led the world into the horrors of World War II.

 

We saw this process of closing societies repeat itself with the birth of the Soviet Union and Communist China, events that sparked decades of cold war spying, covert political plots, and both economic and militaristic sabotage efforts by both sides.  The consequence of these closing societies has been perpetual distrust between Eastern and Western developed societies.

 

Today, we stand at the threshold of a new round of closing societies.  This time, the main driving forces behind the closing societies is technology.  As governmental entities incorporate new computer and video surveillance technologies, the potential for a police-state to develop and misuse these technologies is growing rapidly.  The lessons of history are all we have standing between us and fulfillment of the Orwellian prophecy.

 

  • Given the current state of affairs in the world, identify the most likely candidates for closure and present your arguments for their inclusion on the list.  What sociopolitical environment seems most conducive to such closure?  What technologies and/or policies currently “on the books” might contribute to such closure and what available technologies might assist or hamper such closure?
  • The White Rose Society was a group of college students in Nazi Germany who dared speak out against Hitler and his leadership.  For this, they were found by the Gestapo and executed for sedition and treason.  Compare and contrast these events with reported events involving the Department of Homeland Security.  Are there reasons for concern by the American citizenry?
  • In the 1930s, Hitler had numerous “detainment” camps established throughout Germany into which various groups were exiled from society for “retraining.”  This practice was again seen in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union.  With reports of the United States having similar facilities constructed that purportedly will hold up to a half-million people, are we seeing similar events unfold in the United States and if so, what should we do to stop it?

The closing of societies is a scary prospect, particularly when, as with Italy and Germany, those who close societies are often elected by democratic processes.  Thomas Jefferson warned us that the price of remaining a free society was eternal diligence.  The empowerment of diligence is knowledge and communication.

 

Research and analysis of issues such as closing societies requires skill as many of the clues revealing the closure process are hidden in numerous news stories and half-truth press releases.  Writers like ours are use to working in such environments, frequently having to draw facts together from sources corrupted by governmental and corporate propagandists.

 

For assistance with your article on closing societies, contact us today.

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