On the precipice of this historic election – Georgia’s 2020 senate runoff election – which saw both Georgia’s first Black Senator and first Jewish senator elected, it feels important to highlight the intertwined, complicated, and historic relationship between America’s Blacks and Jews. I began writing this on Wednesday, January 6th – but stopped as terrorists targeted our Capitol building and congresspeople at work as they were meeting to certify the electoral college votes. Today, I want to finish writing this because even though the next thirteen days before inauguration will likely be tumultuous, we must look to the future. The runoff election from January 5th has great implications for the future and I want to highlight some of these here.
A secondary historical passion of mine is Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. I used to believe that the extent of Jewish involvement was fairly well-known, but recent conversations with friends have proven otherwise. I feel that this historic relationship – that of American Jews and American Blacks – bears noting as both Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff united in a joint campaign to flip the United States Senate.
My goal is to first present some basics about the relationship between American Blacks and Jews – introduce its origins, its pitfalls, its successes. I also want to highlight some specific individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement that exemplify this relationship. But, I also want to note that this is not intended to serve as a full history. The goal is to provide a bit of an overview for those that may not know much about this.
To put it simply – Jews were directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the era of the movement that took place in the 50s and 60s. In general, Jews of the mid-twentieth century witnessed the persecution and oppression of Blacks in America and immediately connected these experiences to their own history. Jews believe in their own history of enslavement and therefore related their own history to the experiences of bondage and suffering of Blacks under enslavement in America. At this time, Jews were also just a short generation removed from the Holocaust. They saw Jim Crow laws and policies as reminiscent of those under Nazi Germany. They remembered the time not long before when six million of their people were murdered in the Holocaust. Once again, in a very general sense, American Jews felt a direct connection between their own history of suffering and Blacks’ suffering in America.
These feelings, these beliefs, led many Jews (particularly young Jews) to join civil rights organizations, such as SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). It feels necessary to note that Jewish involvement in civil rights in the 50s and 60s was not new. Jews had been working with civil rights organizations for decades. The early years of the NAACP saw the participation of many Jewish leaders, most notably, brothers Joel and Arthur Spingarn who served as presidents of the NAACP in the 1930s and 1940s. Also interesting to note is Joel Spingarn’s remarkable relationship with W.E.B Du Bois. They were great friends and their letters to each other serve as a fascinating examples of a Black man and a Jewish man wrestling with civil rights issues in the early twentieth century. But, back to the Civil Rights Movement – to be clear, Jews were not often the majority of non-black participation in civil rights groups. But often Jews played critical roles in these organizations, especially as lawyers, and also as providers of financial support.
They also played direct roles in boycotts, sit-ins, and investigations. Though most young Americans learn about Freedom Summer of 1964 in school and, more specifically, the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, very few know that both Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish. Many of the white people that participated in Freedom Summer were young Jews, who left their universities to participate in the fight for civil rights. To reiterate a well-known history, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Micky” Schwerner, were working for CORE – investigating the arson of a Freedom School in Mississippi when they were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. It is also important to note here that this story only gained nationwide attention because two of the three men were white. But they were also Jewish.
I also feel the need to mention one of the most prominent and visible Black-Jewish relationships of the Civil Rights Movement – that of Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rabbi Abraham Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907. In 1938 while living in Germany he was arrested by the Gestapo and eventually deported to Poland. He stayed and worked in Poland for a few months until he was able to escape Poland just before the start of the Second World War. His family was destroyed in the Holocaust – one sister was killed in a German bombing, and his mother and two other sisters were killed in concentration camps.
While living in America, Heschel became directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He first met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a conference on Religion and Race in 1963. At this conference, Heschel spoke directly about race, claiming: “Racism is Satanism.” More of his speech utilized ancient Jewish history and biblical narrative to connect and separate Jewish and Black experiences:
“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses…The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”
In the summer of 1963, Heschel was invited to the White House, along with other civil rights leaders, for a meeting with President Kennedy, in the hopes they would stop planning the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rabbi Heschel responded with the following in a telegram to President Kennedy:
“Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forget right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed, they must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency…The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
The president did not heed these calls. As we know from popular history, the next few years only saw further violence and oppression of Blacks in the United States. A few days prior to the Selma march, Dr. King invited Rabbi Heschel to join the marchers. He walked in the front row alongside other civil rights leaders. Heschel wrote much about this experience, but one line that has always stood out to me was his statement: “I felt my legs were praying.”
Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King would also stand together to protest the Vietnam War shortly before Dr. King’s assassination. The relationship between these men showcased the unique relationship that many Blacks and Jews maintained in this era. It is also important to note that this example is not indicative of all Black-Jewish relationships of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, Jewish involvement created much antagonism between these two groups.
As Jews became more involved in foundational civil rights organizations, many Blacks began to question their role in the movement: weren’t these Jews privileged members of white American society? They questioned Jewish claims to understanding Black struggle. Some Blacks also felt that the Civil Rights Movement, the gaining of equal rights in American society, was their battle to win on their own – what would it mean to accomplish this under Jewish leadership and involvement? These questions were part of the shift in Black organizations towards ideas of Black Power and self-determination.
These questions, this discomfort with Jewish involvement in the movement, did lead to fractures in this relationship. Even more fractures developed due to American Jews’ relationship with Israel, especially after the Six-Day War in 1967. Many Black Americans began to identify with Palestinians and saw Jews, particularly Zionists, as colonial racists.
These fractures in this relationship had real consequences for the future. Though the separations between these groups were based on real differences in experience, privilege, and standing in American society, they led to some resentment by Jews who had given much effort to the movement and felt cast aside. It also led to distrust within the Black community of Jews that would last for decades. I find it important to note that antisemitism was also a factor in this conflict between Blacks and Jews in the Civil Rights Movement.
For all of these reasons, Warnock’s and Ossoff’s wins the other day are even more significant. Yes, they will be the “firsts” – the first Black and Jewish senators representing the state of Georgia. But they also ran a joint campaign – something reminiscent of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel linking arms at protests. Their win is also reminiscent of the Blacks and Jews that worked together in Freedom Summer. For these reasons, their win is incredibly significant.
But this win also makes me hesitant in a few ways. First, it is not enough for us (white people, I’m speaking to you here) to cheer on this win, when we were not responsible for this. We need to demand more from our leaders to fix problems in this country, especially surrounding racial inequalities. I am also concerned about a rise in antisemitism that will inevitably come from Ossoff’s role as Senator.
In general, I feel incredibly hopeful, especially about the future of the American South, after Warnock’s and Ossoff’s wins. But I am also worried about the future of the relationship between Blacks and Jews in this country. My hope is that we can work together to fix the very serious issues ongoing in the United States. But the unity of Blacks and Jews in the past has historically led to even deeper divisions. From here, white Jews must be critical of their complex position in our country – we remain both privileged members of society and targets of hatred. We must be willing to use our history of suffering to support those currently suffering, not obscure their experiences or realities. It is also necessary for us to use the privilege we have – both economic and social – to directly aid our BIPOC communities.
My hope is that Georgia’s runoff election on Tuesday will bring Jews and Blacks together in a productive way. Celebrate now, it is important to feel hope (especially now) – but it is not enough to only celebrate. We need to demand more of our leaders. We need to restore the parts of this relationship that have worked in the past and actively analyze those that have not benefitted both communities.
For more reading on this topic:
SNCC Digital Gateway – For documents and images from SNCC’s history.
Harrison-Kahan, Lori. “Scholars and Knights: W. E. B. Du Bois, J. E. Spingarn, and the NAACP.” Jewish Social Studies18, no. 1 (2011): 63-87. doi:10.2979/jewisocistud.18.1.63.
Greenberg, Cheryl. Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century. Princeton, 2006.