AMST 486: Shalom Y’all
Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris
08 December, 2010
The Relationship of Southern Jews to Blacks and the Civil Rights Movement Since the 1960’s historians and many other scholars have tried to delve into the relationship of blacks and Jews. The experiences of blacks and Jewish people have common histories of dispersion, bondage, persecution, and emancipation. Their relationship can be primarily recognized since the formation of the NAACP in 1909. During the civil rights movement, this organization played a key role in the black-Jewish alliance. However, many scholars have argued if there ever was an alliance between the two, and if so, what might have caused this alliance to break? We may generalize that today’s relationship between the two groups is a relationship in which Jews are superior in regards to social position. In my research I analyzed the works of several scholars to seek the involvement of southern Jews with blacks and the Civil Rights movement.
In his 1973 publication of The Provincials, Eli Evans argues that the South is one of the least anti-Semitic regions in the Nation. Among their gentile neighbors, Jews had been accepted as white members of Southern society during the civil rights movement. At this time Jews barely made up one percent of the South's population. Even though a large portion of white civil rights activists were Jewish, the percentage of Jews in the South that took part in the civil rights movement was significantly smaller compared to Jews in the North, because many Southern Jews were afraid to actively support the civil rights movement. For years they maintained the racial status quo among white gentiles by keeping a low profile. If they were to support desegregation they would be risking their own acceptance within the white community. Although the majority of southern Jews stayed quiet, some Jews did not mind taking this risk because they believed that segregation was wrong. In recent years the much overlooked relationship of Southern Jews to the Civil Rights movement has been debated. I looked at three main sources that analyze this relationship with varying arguments. These three sources are Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, Berkley Kalin and Mark Bauman’s The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s, and Murray Friedman’s What Went Wrong?: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.
Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear was the first book to analyze black-Jewish relations in the South during the civil rights era. He observes southern Jews' views towards blacks from the Cival War period through the civil rights era and seeks to disprove any kind of political black-Jewish alliance in the southern states by discussing the history between the two. Webb also argues that Southern Jews did not respond to civil rights as a group, and concludes that they were not as “weak and ineffectual in the fight against racial equality” as scholars have made them seem. Many individual southern Jews were inspired from conviction, which was often credited to their Judaism. He also argues these individuals that took risks are "all the more remarkable given the dangers" facing them.
Webb’s first chapter is titled “From Slavery to Segregation” which presents a brief review of black-Jewish relations in the South. He mentions that Jews owned and traded slaves, though not in substantial numbers and he notes that some Jews also freed slaves. According to Roy Rosenberg’s book on American Jews, “relatively few Jews held slaves. In 1830 in the American South, there were only 23 Jews among the 59,000 slaveholders owning twenty or more slaves, and only 4 Jews among the 11,000 slaveholders who owned fifty or more slaves.” During the Civil War the majority of southern Jews were loyal Confederates. As Rabbi James Wax of Memphis stated, “Almost all native-born Southerners whose...
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