ESSAY: American Jews in the Civil Rights Movement

This essay was published while I was the curatorial assistant at the Delaware Art Museum in 2018 to complement these exhibitions related to the Civil Rights Movement.

The three artists on display in Fusco Gallery—Danny Lyon, Burton Silverman, and Harvey Dinnerstein—are all known for their visual documentation of the civil rights movement: Danny Lyon through photographs of Freedom Summer, and Silverman and Dinnerstein through sketches of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They also have something else in common. All three of these artists are Jewish. Their connection to the civil rights movement is part of a proud tradition of young, progressive Northern Jews who went down South to record history being made, and to participate in it.

Jewish involvement in the cause of civil rights has been attributed to both a Jewish sense of solidarity as victims of bigotry and oppression in the United States (and in the world) as well as fidelity to the principle of tzedakah, or “righteousness.” Illustrated by classic photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching in lockstep with the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, steadfast Jewish solidarity with the cause of equality and the civil rights movement has become the prevailing narrative. Still, the reality of the American Jewish relationship to the civil rights movement is more complicated. While it’s true that Jews made up a large portion of whites involved in the movement—two-thirds of whites who went down South during Freedom Summer were Jewish—most of them, like Lyon, Silverman, and Dinnerstein, came from Northern states. Danny Lyon took photos of future Senator Bernie Sanders, who was then a fellow student at the University of Chicago, leading a sit-in against segregated university housing in 1962. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Indianapolis worked with the local NAACP in the 1950s and 1960s to desegregate public spaces and housing. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two of the three activists who were brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964, were Jewish. Their faces are featured on that famous “missing” poster.

Missing persons poster created by the FBI in 1964, signed by the Director J. Edgar Hoover. Shows the photographs of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner.

Jewish communities in the South, which totaled one half of one percent of the Southern population during the 1950s, were much more cautious about supporting integration and civil rights. Established Jewish organizations were far from unified on the civil rights front. The Montgomery Jewish Federation actively fought attempts by Northern-based and national Jewish organizations to demonstrate support for the cause. Southern Rabbis who supported the civil rights movement, such as Charles Martinband and Seymour Atlas, often faced opposition and attempts at censorship from their congregations and synagogue officials. Southern Jews feared that outspoken activism in favor of equality would make them targets of white supremacists who bombed synagogues and asserted that integration was a Jewish plot to destroy the white race. But these communities also resisted integration out of a general sense of complacency and assimilation with their white Christian neighbors. Even within this group, there were Jewish activists on the frontlines. In Miami, young Jewish women were instrumental in organizing the local chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), which staged lunch counter sit-ins in the late 1950s.

The idealized story of Black-Jewish solidarity during the Civil Rights Movement exists to this day. As recently as June 2018, Commentary Magazine argued that Blacks are “indebted” to Jews for their support (both logistical and financial) during this time. However, it’s important to remember that this history is far from simple. Indeed, much discussion of the Black-Jewish relationship—both in historical and contemporary terms—ignores the existence of Black Jews. Like any community, Jews were not, and are not, a monolith.

Sources/Further Reading:

  • Michael Lerner and Cornel West, Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America (New York: Plume Books), 1996. Available to read for free at the Internet Archive here:
  • Seth Forman, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Jewish: Desegregation in the South and the Crisis of Jewish Liberalism,” American Jewish History, vol. 85, no. 2 (June 1997), pp. 121-142
  • Leonard Dinnerstein, “Southern Jewry and the Desegregation Crisis,” American Jewish Historical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 3 (March 1973), pp. 231-241
  • Clive Webb, “Freedom For All? Blacks, Jews, and the Political Censorship of White Racists in the Civil Rights Era,” American Jewish History, vol. 94, no. 4 (December 2008), pp. 267-297
  • Daniel Itzkovitz, “Notes From the Black-Jewish Monologue,” Transition, no. 105, 2011, pp. 3-20
  • Krista Kinslow, “The Road to Freedom is Long and Winding: Jewish Involvement in the Indianapolis Civil Rights Movement,” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 108, no. 1 (March 2012), pp. 1-34
  • Clive Webb, “Closing Ranks: Montgomery Jews and Civil Rights, 1954-1960,” Journal of American Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, part 1 (December 1998), pp. 463-481
  • Raymond A. Mohl, “‘South of the South?’ Jews, Blacks, and the Civil Rights Movement in Miami, 1945-1960,” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 18, no. 2 (Winter 1999), pp. 3-36
  • Henry L. Feingold, “From Equality to Liberty: The Changing Political Culture of American Jews,” in The Americanization of the Jews, ed. Robert M. Seltzer and Norman J. Cohen (New York: NYU Press), 1995
  • Huey L. Perry and Ruth B. White, “The Post-Civil Rights Transformation of the Relationship Between Blacks and Jews in the United States,” Phylon, vol. 47, no. 1 (1st Qtr., 1986), pp 51-60