Jews and the Civil Rights Movement

Occidental Dissent has an article on Solomon Blatt, a powerful Jewish politician in South Carolina who was a staunch proponent of segregation during the 1950s and 1960s (“The Strange Career of Solomon Blatt“). Interesting article, but it ends thus:

South Carolina’s desegregation shows that the existence of the Union, not Jewish influence, was the primary cause of the South’s racial and cultural decline.

This does not follow. One surely can’t argue that because one Jewish politician in one state opposed desegregation that Jews did not have a decisive influence on the Civil Rights movement in general. South Carolina by itself could not withstand the onslaught against desegregation given that the laws against segregation were national in application.

First, one Jew who fought for segregation etc. really doesn’t change the big picture. There is likely no issue on which 100% of Jews agree; indeed, it’s well-known that the great majority of Southern Jews accepted the Southern status quo. For example:

Jews in the South were typically reluctant participants in the Civil Rights movement. The Southern Jewish community was relatively small compared to the much larger Jewish population that immigrated from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924, and had relatively little national influence. Southern Jews immigrated in the 19th century mainly from Germany, and they tended toward political conservatism, at least compared to their Eastern European brethren. The general perception of northern Jews and southern blacks and whites was that southern Jews had adopted white attitudes on racial issues. Moreover, southern Jews adopted a low profile because southern whites often (correctly) blamed northern Jews as major instigators of the civil rights movement and because of the linkages among Jews, communism, and civil rights agitation during a period when both the NAACP and mainstream Jewish organizations were doing their best to minimize associations with communism. (Jews were the backbone of the Communist Party USA, and the CPUSA agitated on behalf of black causes. It was common for southerners to rail against Jews while exempting southern Jews from their accusations: “We have only the high-type Jew here, not like the kikes in New York.”

Jewish businessmen adopted the segregationist mores of the South and often assumed an economic role of exploitation of Blacks. A 1946 comment on the ADL Committee on Labor Relations noted that “It must be stated bluntly that with respect to [African Americans] Jews are vulnerable in the South. The only Jew a Negro meets in the city is a pawn broker, grocer, insurance agent or landlord. The only Jew a sharecropper meets is a storekeeper or tradesman.” A journalist reported in 1946 that Blacks in the South often had anti-Jewish attitudes; they took a “grim satisfaction from the Nazi persecution of the Jews. They contend that their local Jews have been indistinguishable from the ‘crackers’ in their attitude toward Negroes.” Though there were some exceptions, the vast majority of southern Jews did not involve themselves in the civil rights movement even after the struggle intensified in the 1950s and 1960s. “Jews, Blacks and Race” (footnotes removed)

Most importantly, the decisive role of Northern Jews (particularly those who immigrated from Eastern Europe and their descendants) and the organized Jewish community in the Civil Rights movement is well-established:
Jewish activities in support of blacks involved litigation, legislation, fund-raising, political organizing, and academic movements opposed to the concept of biologically based racial differences. … Until after World War II, the Jewish-Black alliance essentially involved wealthy German Jews aiding black organizations [prototypically, the NAACP] financially and via their organizational abilities. …

In the post–World War II period the entire gamut of Jewish civil service organizations were involved in black issues, including the AJCommittee, the AJCongress, and the ADL: “With professionally trained personnel, fully equipped offices, and public relations know-how, they had the resources to make a difference.”By the end of the 1940s the ADL had designated the South as particularly in need of change; the ADL monitored instances of racial tension and violence and increasingly sought intervention by the federal government in the affairs of the region, including racial segregation.

Jews contributed from two thirds to three quarters of the money for civil rights groups during the 1960s.The AJCongress, the AJCommittee, and the ADL worked closely with the NAACP to write legal briefs and raise money in the effort to end segregation. Jewish groups, particularly the AJCongress, played a leading role in drafting civil rights legislation and pursuing legal challenges related to civil rights issues mainly benefiting blacks. “Jewish support, legal and monetary, afforded the civil rights movement a string of legal victories. . . . There is little exaggeration in an American Jewish Congress lawyer’s claim that ‘many of these laws were actually written in the offices of Jewish agencies by Jewish staff people, introduced by Jewish legislators and pressured into being by Jewish voters.’ ”

A watershed period in Jewish support for blacks was the aftermath of World War II. Jews emerged from World War II in a much more powerful position than before the war. Anti-Jewish attitudes that had been common before the war declined precipitously, and Jewish organizations assumed a much higher profile in influencing ethnic relations in the U.S., not only in the area of civil rights but also in immigration policy. Significantly this high Jewish profile was spearheaded by the American Jewish Congress and the ADL, both dominated by Jews who had immigrated from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920 and their descendants. … An understanding of the special character of this Jewish population is critical to understanding Jewish influence in the United States from 1945 to the present. The German-Jewish elite that had dominated Jewish community affairs via the AJCommittee earlier in the century, gave way to a new leadership made up of Eastern European immigrants and their descendants. Even the AJCommittee, the bastion of the German-Jewish elite, came to be headed by John Slawson, who had immigrated at the age of 7 from the Ukraine. The AJCongress, a creation of the Jewish immigrant community, was headed by Will Maslow, a socialist and a Zionist. Zionism and political radicalism typified the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. …

Jews were also instrumental in creating the intellectual context that made possible the revolution in racial relationships in the U.S. … During the 1930s, the AJCommittee funded the research of Franz Boas who was instrumental in eradicating the idea that biological race was an important source of differences among people. …

The general term for this multi-faceted effort by Jewish organizations to alter ethnic relations in the U.S. is the intergroup relations movement. This effort included legal challenges to bias in housing, education, and public employment. Jewish organizations also drafted legislative proposals and attempted to secure their passage into law in state and national legislative bodies. Another prong of this offensive was shaping messages in the media, promoting educational programs for students and teachers, and, as noted above, promoting intellectual efforts to reshape the intellectual discourse on race in the academic world. The ADL was centrally involved in these efforts, “utilizing radio and television spots, clever jingles, filmstrips and other media efforts.”The ADL recruited Hollywood stars such as Bess Myerson who toured the country with the pitch that “you can’t be beautiful, and hate.” Hollywood movies, such as Gentleman’s Agreement and The House I Live In also disseminated these messages, and the play South Pacific, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, included a theme of interracial marriage and a song stating that children had to be taught to hate. As with Jewish involvement in immigration policy and a great many other instances of Jewish political and intellectual activity in both modern and premodern times, the intergroup relations movement often worked to minimize overt Jewish involvement.

The ideology of intergroup animosity developed by the intergroup relations movement derived from the Studies in Prejudice series sponsored by the AJCommittee, particularly the Frankfurt School’s The Authoritarian Personality [the Frankfurt School is a Jewish intellectual movement, funded in part by the AJCommittee]. This work explicitly viewed manifestations of ethnocentrism or discrimination against outgroups as a mental disease and thus literally a public health problem. The assault on intergroup animosity was likened to the medical assault on deadly infectious diseases, and people with the disease were described by activists as “infected.” A consistent theme of the intellectual rationale for this body of ethnic activism emphasized the benefits to be gained by increased levels of intergroup harmony—an aspect of the idealism inherent in Horace Kallen’s conceptualization of multiculturalism—without mentioning that some groups, particularly European-derived, non-Jewish groups, would lose economic and political power and decline in cultural influence. Negative attitudes toward groups were viewed not as the result of competing group interests but rather as the result of individual psychopathology. Finally, while ethnocentrism by non-Jews was viewed as a public health problem, the AJCongress fought against Jewish assimilation and was a strong supporter of Israel as a Jewish ethnostate. (Ibid., footnotes removed)

Because attitudes opposed to segregation are now a consensus among Americans, the decisive role of Jews in the Civil Rights movement is now a point of pride among Jewish organizations (see Stuart Svonkin (1997). Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties. New York: Columbia University Press). Civil Rights remains a focus of Jewish activist groups like the ADL.

In any case, suffice it to say that the attitudes of one Southern Jewish politician do not change the big picture of the role of Jews and the organized Jewish community in the Civil Rights movement.

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