Jews have been involved in some of America’s most defining moments. They were participants in the Revolutionary War and fought alongside colonial Americans as well as sending financial support and signing resolutions that were part of the journey that led to American Independence. The Civil Rights Movement was no exception. As we mark M.L.K. Day and remember the valiant struggle for equality fought over fifty years ago, we should also make note of the fact that many prominent Jews also played an integral part in helping Martin Luther King Jr. to achieve that victory.
In fact, Jews’ involvement in civil rights advocacy in America began decades before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950‘s and 60‘s. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the largest civil rights groups today, was co-founded in 1909 by Jewish activist Henry Moskowitz. Moreover, the NAACP’s first chairman and later president, Joel Spingarn, as well as Spingarn’s brother Arthur, the second president of the NAACP, were both Jewish.
A major impetus for Jews to join the nascent African-American civil rights movement came in 1915 with the lynching of Leo Frank. Frank was a Jewish factory manager who was falsely accused of murdering a 13 year old girl who worked at his factory. The fact that Frank was denied justice and lynched like a runaway African-American slave led many American Jewish leaders to feel greater solidarity with African-Americans. One of these leaders was Julius Rosenwald of Sears-Roebuck fame. Rosenwald, using a large part of his vast fortune, collaborated with the renowned African-American intellectuals Booker T. Washington and William H. Baldwin to improve the state of African-American education.
Another noteworthy figure is Samuel Leibowitz, legal counsel for the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine African-Americans who were falsely accused of rape in 1931 and finally pardoned in 2013. In the face of insults and death threats, Leibowitz appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the Civil Rights Movement took off, Jews were statistically one of the most involved non-black groups to participate. Scores of Jewish students worked side-by-side with African-Americans in civil rights groups including, CORE, SNCC and SCLC, which in turn were partially funded by Jewish philanthropy groups. Jews also made up a large percentage of white volunteers in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer initiative, an attempt to register as many African-Americans to vote as possible. And Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t limited to secular, college-types either.
Many rabbis took on African-American civil rights as a spiritual quest. Leading intellectual and theologian Rabbi Abraham Heschel took part in the Selma, Alabama march of 1965 where he was photographed walking just a few spaces away from King. Rabbi Heschel later wrote of his experience, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
In another example of Jewish religious participation, sixteen rabbis were arrested while protesting in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964 at the Monsoon Motor Lodge. It was the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history.
Some Jews paid an ever greater price for fighting for civil rights. Jewish activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and black activist James Chaney were all murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 near Philadelphia.
King honored their sacrifice, as well as that of the imprisoned rabbis, by saying:
“How could there be anti-Semitism 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.”
In perhaps the most notable example of Jewish participation in the civil rights struggle, Rabbi Joachim Prinz delivered a speech just moments before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his, “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Rabbi Prinz made an eloquent call to action, saying, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those most tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
Another religious leader present at the March on Washington was Rabbi Uri Miller, president of the Synagogue Council of America, who gave the opening prayer in which he taught that, “when we deprive our fellow man of bread and dignity, we negate the Tselem Elokim– the image of G-d in man — and delay the fulfillment of His Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, other Jewish activists were working behind the scenes in Washington, D.C.. In 1963, the NAACP changed the purpose of its Leadership Conference on Civil Rights organization, formerly a fair labor advocacy group, to pressure the Kennedy administration and Congress to enact new civil rights legislation. Jewish labor lawyer Joseph Rauh, Jr. was brought in to be one of the LCCR’s foremost lobbyists on Capitol Hill, while Arnold Aronson, former head of the Bureau on Jewish Employment Problems, would be the group’s executive director. Marvin Caplan, former reporter for Fairchild Publications was selected by Aronson to be his right-hand man.
Together, Rauh, Aronson, and Caplan were integral to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. They not only worked with Congress to strengthen parts of the bill, but they also reached out to the public to drum up support. Additionally, they brought in religious leaders including Rabbi Irwin Blank of the Synagogue Council of America to advocate for the bill before the House Judiciary Committee. Thanks to the efforts of Jewish leaders of the LCCR, a provision was added to the bill to prohibit job discrimination on the basis of race.
But the LCCR’s fight wasn’t over yet. Once the Civil Rights Act cleared the House, it went to the Senate, where pro-segregation Democrats launched a record filibuster against it. The LCCR organized rabbis and other Jewish leaders in an all-out lobbying campaign that reached almost every senator’s office. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations even encouraged its constituents to write to their senator in support of the bill. Were it not for the lobbying efforts of the LCCR and other Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Congress, the course of the 1960‘s Civil Rights Movement might have been very different.
For his part, Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply appreciative of the efforts made by his Jewish friends and colleagues. King made a speech at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois in 1958 and a speech at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, New Jersey in 1963. The latter speech was made at the behest of his close friend and advisor Rabbi Israel Dresner, an ardent supporter of civil rights who was arrested numerous times during Freedom Rides.
When King himself was arrested in 1963 in Birmingham, he wrote that “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal”…. It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”
This echoed the sentiments he expressed in an earlier speech to the American Jewish Congress in which he said, “My people were brought in America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born out of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid us of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
On the subject of Israel, King once responded to a student who made an anti-Zionist remark by saying “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” Speaking at the Rabbinical Assembly for Conservative Judaism just two weeks before he was assassinated, King opined, “I think it is necessary to say that what is basic and what is needed in the Middle East is peace. Peace for Israel is one thing. Peace for the Arab side of that world is another thing. Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”
King had planned on visiting Israel in 1967 but canceled his trip due to the political climate following the Six Day War. In a letter to El Al Airlines president Mordechai Ben-Ami, King lamented that it was “extremely difficult to conduct a religious pilgrimage free of both political over tones and the fear of danger to the participants.”
While the relationship between Jews and African-Americans hasn’t always been tension-free, during the Civil Rights Movement, M.L.K. and his Jewish friends and advisors built bridges based on common goals and a certain degree of shared history. As Representative John Lewis, one of King’s confidantes, said, “[M.L.K.] understood that a special relationship exists between African Americans and Jews… He knew that both peoples were uprooted involuntarily from their homelands. He knew that both peoples were shaped by the tragic experience of slavery. He knew that both peoples were forced to live in ghettoes, victims of segregation… He knew that both peoples were subject to laws passed with the particular intent of oppressing them simply because they were Jewish or black. He knew that both peoples have been subjected to oppression and genocide on a level unprecedented in history.”
(Sources: Tablet Magazine, Forward, Jewish Virtual Library, The Jewish Press)