by Shelley Neese
Jews and Blacks came together naturally out of shared experiences of persecution and perseverance. Like any complex relationship there were periods of cooperation and of conflict. The 1950s and early 1960s are known as the Golden Years when Black and Jewish communities joined hands to take the lead in improving national race relations. But Jews played a major role in the development of civil rights organizations decades before. With the end of the long costly years of fighting racial discrimination in the courts and on the streets, the two communities experienced a marked break down in their relationship. With the rise of Black Power, race riots, and Israel’s wars, Blacks and Jews saw less mutual concerns and both turned inward. This timeline is not a comprehensive narrative of Afro-American history, American Jewish history, or the Civil Rights Movement. It is simply a retelling of the moments in history when Blacks and Jews crossed paths in meaningful ways that shaped their relationship and individual destinies.
1619 and 1654 (Entry to America)
The first black Africans arrive in the American colonies in 1619; the first professing Jews in 1654. Africans are forcefully shipped over as indentured servants; Jews are fleeing from persecution in their home countries and seeking a better life. A conservative estimate of the number of Africans who perish during the centuries of the slave trade is 15 million.
Note: Though the first official Jewish immigrants to America came in the 17th century, groups of Marranos (Jews who were forcefully converted to Christianity during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions) fled to the New World two hundred years earlier.
1619-1865 (Imagery of the Exodus)
Racial slavery is legalized within the boundaries of the United States soon after the founding of the first colonies in Virginia. Between 1619 and 1807 approximately 645,000 Africans are shipped to what is now the U.S. By the Civil War, the slave population grows to 4 million.
The bondage of slaves is maintained by slave masters’ violent punishments. If slaves slow in their labor or try to escape they are brutalized and beaten or even murdered. As family members are sold at will, slaves live under the constant threat of families being torn apart. Under these terrorizing conditions, slaves look to the Bible for hope of salvation. Slaves, exposed to biblical teaching in the Protestant South, cling to the story of the Exodus. The imagery of God rescuing his people out of bondage in Egypt provides inspiration for slaves seeking freedom. Black slaves await their Moses and dream of a Promised Land.
Evidence of slaves’ affinity for stories of the Children of Israel is found in the many Gospel spirituals and freedom songs. For example, by 1790 slaves are singing, “Go Down Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land. Tell ole Pharaoh, Let my people go.” Another example of Afro-Americans early feeling of connection to the Holy Land is the use of “Zion” in the names of Black churches from the earliest times (i.e. Mount Zion, Zion Baptist Church).
1619-1865 (Early Jewish positions on slavery)
Like their Christian neighbors, the majority of the Jewish community in the South support slavery, or at least do not speak out against it. The percentage of Jews in the South involved in the slave trade (buying, owning, or selling) is comparable to the percentage of other whites (5-7%).
The Jewish population of the South by 1860 is estimated at 15,000. Given this miniscule number their influence on the slave system is insignificant. Jews play no big part in pro-slavery or anti-slavery movements. Jewish slave owners, like white Christians, willfully ignore their spiritual traditions that had long stressed the obligation to help the oppressed “because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Before the Civil War there are only a few examples of Jewish antislavery activities. Moses Elias Levy, a Jewish sugar planter in Florida, published in 1828 “A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery.” Levy was one of the few elite Southerners to propose emancipation.
After the American Revolution, support grows for the emancipation of slaves and abolition of slavery. As the Abolition Movement gains momentum, emancipation acts pass in every Northern state, New Jersey being the last to pass in 1804. Southerners, however, still rely greatly on slave labor and are very resistant to see it end.
Many of the Jewish revolutionaries and intellectuals fleeing Germany for America in 1848 join ranks with American Abolitionists. The most known of these immigrant Jewish abolitionists are August Bondi, Theodore Weiner, and Jacob Benjamin. The three men respond to a New York Tribune editorial in 1855 urging Americans to “hurry out to Kansas to help save the state from the curse of slavery.” Based on the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1954, the residents of both new states are to decide whether they will expand or end slavery, which then determines if they enter the Union as a free or slave state.
Bondi, Weiner, and Benjamin move to Kansas to help support the anti-slavery forces. All three men join ranks with the Kansas Regulars under the leadership of John Brown—an active abolitionist. On 2 June, 1856 the Kansas Regulars clash violently with pro-slavery forces in the battle of Black Jack Creek. Shortly after the battle, Kansas abolishes slavery and enters the Union as a free state. This battle is a contributing event leading up to the American Civil War
1861-1865 (Civil War)
Jews, like the nation as a whole, are divided on the slavery debate. The majority of Jews in the North favor emancipation and the majority of Jews in the South—tied to the plantation economy—side with the Confederacy. Leading Rabbis participate in the antislavery debate. From the pulpit, they preach the social evils of slavery. When the war starts, many Northern rabbis urge Jews to volunteer in the army and support the Union.
Lincoln’s call for troops is met with an enthusiastic response from the Jewish community. More than 9,000—a high proportion of them volunteers—fight in the Union ranks, an extremely large number considering the fact that less than 150,000 Jews resided in the U.S. at that time. 2,000 Jews fight on the Confederate side.
Seven Jews are awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery in fighting with the Union army. Lieutenant Abraham Cohn of the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers who fought in eleven major battles and was twice wounded is awarded this hallowed distinction.
On 17 December, in the heat of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant issues an order to expel all Jews from doing business with federal troops in the area of his immediate command: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Under instruction from President Lincoln, Grant rescinds the order and no Jews actually have to leave. Even still this event is embarrassing for Grant and the most outright anti-Semitic episode in 19th century America. Instances of social segregation against Jews are on the rise.
1860-1890 (Jews and African Americans as second class citizens)
With the end of slavery comes a new system of injustice. Former slaves are “free” but they face segregation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in housing, employment, and education. In the Black Press, Jews alone among American whites are seen as sharing the status of second-class citizenship. In 1867, The Christian Recorder, official organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, condemns the persecution of Jews by Gentile whites: “How cruel, how unjust the spirit that mocks this unfortunate people , a people of your own color.” The Recorder goes on to call upon white America to put an end to this “narrow-minded prejudice against an honorable people.” In 1889, The New York Age, a leading Afro-American weekly, says flatly: “There is a similarity between the Jews and the Negro. One is despised almost as much as the other.”
1881 (Tuskegee University)
Tuskegee Institute is founded in 1881 during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. In Alabama, like the rest of the South, former slaves are illiterate with few employable job skills. The Tuskegee school provides freed slaves with an education so they can support themselves. The 25-year old Booker T. Washington is selected as the first principal at Tuskegee. Washington is an aggressive fund raiser for the school and he attracts many Jewish supporters.
In 1904, Paul Warburg, a Jewish investment banker, joins Tuskegee’s board of trustees at Washington’s behest. Julius Rosenwald, son of Jewish immigrants who rose to the presidency of Sears, joins the board in 1909 after being impressed with Washington’s autobiography.
Rosenwald is a creative philanthropist who enlists the help of other distinguished and wealthy friends, many of them also Jewish. Between 1911 and 1948, Rosenwald gives $22 million to support Afro-American education. Washington and Rosenwald develop a matching program for developing new schools in counties where white school authorities refuse to provide school facilities for Afro-Americans. They eventually establish and operate over 5,000 small community schools on the Tuskegee Institute model. This work is a major part of Dr. Washington’s (and Rosenwald’s) legacy.
1894 (Dreyfus Affair)
Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French Army, is wrongfully convicted of treason. Charged with passing military secrets to the German embassy in Paris, he is sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island. The Dreyfus Affair divides France and escalates to a political scandal with deeply anti-Semitic overtones. In a period where lynchings are commonplace, Afro-Americans sympathize with Dreyfus and note the similarities of the Dreyfus Affair to the discrimination they face in the U.S.
Throughout the Dreyfus Affair, Afro-American newspapers condemn the French government. “The cowardly persecution of Captain Dreyfus,” declares the Washington Bee, “will go down to posterity as the most outrageous persecution of an innocent man known to modern times.” In a letter to The Colored American, Rabbi Abram L. Issacs, editor of the Jewish Messenger, thanks the Black press for their support of Dreyfus, and writes that Jews could best return the support by fighting discrimination and standing for the rights of suffering Afro-Americans.
1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson)
The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of racial segregation, even in public accommodations, under the doctrine “separate but equal.” This is a landmark decision upheld by Southern states and many local governments outside the south until 1954.
1903-1906 (Russian pogroms and American Lynchings)
A wave of pogroms breaks out in Russia in 1903, leaving 2,000 Jews dead and thousands more wounded. The Russian police and army do nothing to quell the violence and Imperial Russia is suspected of being indifferent at best, complicit at worst. In the aftermath of the Bialystok pogrom in 1905, the U.S. Senate passes a resolution expressing the horror of the American people for Russia’s persecution of Jews. President Theodore Roosevelt reinforces the resolution by diplomatically protesting the Russian government. The Russian Tsar rejects the reprimand, citing the U.S.’s record on Black lynchings, and advises President Roosevelt to concern himself with the persecution of minorities in his own country.
The hypocrisy of the Senate’s position on pogroms in comparison to lynchings is not lost on Afro-Americans. The editors of the local Voice of the Negro remarked “With the Jews all lovers of justice are bound to sympathize…but what right has the U.S. Senate to be horrified?…We are having here in America Kishinevs and Bialystoks every day.”
Jews in America concerned for the safety of their co-religionist in Russia do not ignore the parallels between the plight of Afro-Americans in the South and persecution of Jews in Russia. Jewish newspapers on more than one occasion refer to lynchings and anti-Black riots as “pogroms.”
1909 (Founding of NAACP and National Urban League)
Racial violence is rampant, segregation is institutionalized, and Afro-Americans are disenfranchised. In this setting, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded out of necessity. The NAACP acts as a civil rights organization to eliminate race prejudice and ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of minority groups in the U.S. The NAACP is started by a diverse group of Black, White, and Jewish Americans. Among the founders are thirty-two Afro-Americans, including W.E.B Du Bois and Ida Wells-Barnett. Early Jewish co-founders are Henry Moskowitz, Julius Rosenthal, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, and Lillian Wald.
By 1920 the NAACP is heavily reliant on Jewish financial and staff support. Many prominent Jews also assume leadership positions in the NAACP. Joel E. Spingarn, a Jewish professor, serves as NAACP board chairman. Spingarn recruits other Jewish board members such as Jacob Schiff, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Jacob Billikopf, and Arthur Sachs.
In its early years, the NAACP uses the courtroom to overturn Jim Crow statutes and other social injustices. In 1913, the NAACP fights President Woodrow Wilson’s introduction of segregation into the Federal Government policy. The NAACP also devotes much of its time bringing public attention to the problem of lynchings.
One year after the founding of NAACP, prominent Jewish and Afro-American leaders create the National Urban League. The League is a community-based movement devoted to empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream. In 1911, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) is created to combat anti-Semitism.
1913-1915 (Lynching of Leo Frank)
On 26 April 1913 the bloodied body of Mary Phagan, a 13-year old white female, is found in the basement of the pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia where Phagan worked. The Atlanta police force has few suspects. Leo Frank, the manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta and an active member of Georgia’s Jewish community, is charged with Phagan’s murder based on shaky evidence. Days after Frank’s arrest, Jim Conley, the pencil factory’s Afro-American janitor, is caught washing blood out of a shirt. When confronted, Conley comes forth with an elaborate story of how he had been paid by Frank to help move Phagan’s dead body. This is the first instance in the postbellum South that the testimony of an Afro-American man is used to convict a white man.
The Leo Frank trial becomes a national obsession as newspapers have a field day reporting on the criminal proceeding. The Atlanta newspapers compete in circulation wars as they sensationalize every detail of the murder trial in largely racist terms. The Frank case is the first incident of intense national interest in which the needs of Afro-Americans and Jews seem in direct conflict. Afro-Americans believe Frank is guilty and Jews want to see Conley stand trial. Despite the gross inconsistencies in Conley’s story, on 24 May, a grand jury finds Frank guilty after deliberating for only four hours. Crowds outside the courthouse chant “Hang the Jews.”
After two years of failed appeals and legal haggling, the Georgia Governor reduces Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment based on inconclusive evidence and additional testimony. Outraged, one night an angry mob calling itself “The Knights of Mary Phagan” decide to take justice in their own hands, kidnapping Frank from prison and publicly hanging him.
The Jewish community is traumatized by Frank’s lynching. Half of Georgia’s Jewish community leaves the state. The Frank case also generates the founding of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.
1920s (Rise of KKK)
The Leo Frank trial is used skillfully by populist politician and journalist Tom Watson to rally support for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The new Klan is inaugurated in 1915 at a meeting on top of Stone Mountain, Georgia with “The Knights of Mary Phagan” serving as the bulk of the leading founders. It has been forty years since the Klan was federally ordered to disband.
The new Klan differs from the original in that its influence grows all over the country and is not just concentrated in the South. At its peak in the 1920s, Klan membership exceeds 4 million. The reorganized Klan now extends its hateful agenda to include Jews, Catholics, Communists, and immigrants as victims.
A wave of anti-Semitism, racism, and nativism breaks out in the U.S. Racial violence mushrooms. This is largely engineered by the Klan and fueled by Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, a sensationalist newspaper that publishes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. With this turn for the worse, Jewish involvement with Afro-Americans greatly intensifies and they form an alliance of resistance to bring down the racist and anti-Semitic activities of the Klan.
1915-1929 (Great Migration)
In the interwar years, over one million Afro-Americans migrate northward. Afro-Americans are trying to escape Jim Crow, find work, and pursue what is hoped to be a better life in the North. In the decade previous to the Afro-American migration two million migrant Jews came to America’s shores from Eastern Europe. They came as refugees fleeing persecution and pogroms. Southern Afro-Americans and Jewish immigrants converge in the urban cities of the North and Midwest. Although Afro-American and Jewish organizational leaders have been working together intensely for several years, this is the first time when Jewish and Afro-American populations have sustained personal contact.
1920 (In the Courtroom)
The NAACP’s civil rights strategy is to use litigation, law suits, and lobbying to challenge the U.S. to live up to its democratic values. One problem the NAACP faces, however, is a lack of Afro-American lawyers. Given the limited opportunities Afro-Americans have been given, there are only eleven hundred Afro-American lawyers in the entire country. Most of them had little experience. Jewish lawyers volunteer to fill the void. Jews on the NAACP legal counsel in these early years include Louis Marshall, James Marshall, Nathan Margold, Charles Studin, and Arthur B. Spingarn. Together they win a string of significant courtroom battles.
1933 (Rise of the Third Reich)
On 30 January, 1933 Adolph Hitler is appointed chancellor of Germany. While the European nations and the U.S. hesitate in denouncing the Third Reich, Jews in the U.S. look for any possible ally. Afro-Americans are among the first to denounce Nazism outright. Black-Jewish relations enter a new era of closeness as they coordinate their opposition to Fascism.
For Jews, the danger of Nazi ideology is clear. Jews in Germany are stripped of their citizenship, removed from their jobs, and forced to live in ghettos. This is just one step in Hitler’s plan to ultimately remove Jews from German society. Afro-Americans sympathize with the severe oppression of European Jews, but Nazi ideology with its theories of white supremacy has racist implications that threaten them as well.
The outrage white Americans feel towards Nazis provides an opportunity to highlight similarities between the treatment of Jews in Europe and Blacks in America. Both groups are disenfranchised. Both are excluded from parks, playgrounds, and beaches. Both endure restrictions on their travel, education, and employment. Afro-Americans support U.S. intervention in Europe, but they question how long they must continue to suffer in America.
1941 (Fair Employment Practices Act)
On the eve of World War II there are ample work opportunities for Americans looking to lift themselves out of the Great Depression. U.S. defense plants are resistant to hiring Blacks. Jews, as well, face serious employment discrimination.
On 25 June, 1941 President Roosevelt signs Executive Order No. 8802—The Fair Employment Practices Act. The Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) is created to oversee enforcement. The Act prohibits discrimination in government offices and all companies doing war-related work based on “race, creed, color, or national origin.” It is the first presidential action to prevent employment discrimination. This is a significant breakthrough for Afro-Americans, Jews, and women on the job front.
Enforcing and expanding the order brings Afro-American and Jewish agencies into frequent collaboration. They work together to push states to enforce their own Fair Employment laws. When Congress threatens to dissolve the FEPC at the war’s end, Blacks and Jews together form the National Council for a Permanent FEPC. This is the beginning of the organized Jewish community’s full involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
1943 (Detroit race riots)
On 20 June, 1943 rumors spread about interracial fighting at Belle Isle. One story is that white police on Belle Isle threw an Afro-American woman and her baby off a bridge. Another is that a white woman was raped and murdered by Blacks. These rumors quickly ignite anger and fear among Detroit residents. Black and White gangs swarm the streets of Detroit and virtual guerrilla warfare begins. People are beaten getting off street cars. Angry youth run down Hastings Street, where most stores are Jewish owned, breaking windows, assaulting merchants, and looting stores. The 36 hours of rioting claims 34 lives, 25 of them Afro-American. More than 1,800 are arrested for looting and other incidents.
The Hastings Street Riot ironically serves to bring Afro-American and Jewish agencies together. Blacks and Jews participate in ‘unity committees’ established by the city and state in response to the riots to examine the status of race relations and find ways to come together. Jewish shopkeepers form the East Side Merchants Association to become more involved in the Black community. The Association draws praise from Detroit’s Black leaders for its work with needy families and its support of Afro-American defense workers in their quest to secure public housing—something Blacks have heretofore been excluded from.
1945-1948 (Fight against Restrictive Housing Covenants)
In 1945, an Afro-American couple is imprisoned for violating a restrictive covenant on their small home in Los Angeles. Restrictive covenants are pledges made by property owners not to sell housing to certain racial or religious groups. Both Afro-Americans and Jews are prohibited from renting or buying real estate in areas whose residents have signed a restrictive covenant. With a severe postwar housing shortage making the few houses on the market off limits leaves working-class minorities homeless.
The NAACP brings three cases to the Supreme Court to bring awareness to these racist and anti-Semitic housing laws. ADL, AJC, and the American Jewish Congress boost the campaign by giving the NAACP advice and briefs based on their own experience with fighting restrictive covenants. In 1948, the Supreme Court decides restricted covenants are in violation of the 14th amendment. The fight for better housing has a direct benefit for both Afro-Americans and Jews. Since mutual action proves effective in an issue of shared concern, both groups are encouraged to continue cooperating on other issues.
May 1948 (Creation of the State of Israel)
Afro-Americans are sympathetic to the Jews’ quest for a nation since they too have known the pain of dispersion and longing for a homeland. In Israel’s strive for independence, the majority of Afro-Americans staunchly support Jewish rights to the Holy Land. Many Afro-American leaders play an active role in their support. Most notably is Walter White, the Afro-American head of the NAACP. White helps lobby the Liberian and Haitian delegations to the UN to vote in favor of the partition.
1950 (Leadership Conference on Civil Rights)
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) is founded by three leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement: NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters founder A. Philip Randolph, and National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council leader Arnold Aaronson. The LCCR is based on the belief that social justice can best be achieved through coalition. The coalition focuses on promoting civil rights legislation at the Congressional level, testifying before Congressional committees on hundreds of bills protecting civil rights and civil liberties. LCCR is instrumental in lobbying for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
1950-1965 (Golden Age)
The optimism that follows the defeat of Nazi Germany brings with it hopes of eliminating segregation in the U.S. Jews, seeing the dire effects of the racist ideology that culminated in the Holocaust, are driven to join Afro-Americans in their quest for justice. The postwar alliance between Black and Jewish groups is different in that they move beyond their self-interests. The guiding philosophy is that expanding the rights of one minority group expands the rights for all. Both groups work together on issues that exclusively benefit the other. Jews, for example, join the effort to desegregate restaurants, resorts, and beaches even though they are rarely excluded from them. Afro-Americans speak out on the rights of refugees and immigration reform, which are primarily Jewish causes. Their joint action brings power to the struggle and achieves great civil rights victories in the legal and legislative arenas. This period is known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Black-Jewish relations.
1951- 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education)
In 1951 the NAACP files a class action suit against the Board of Education of the city of Topeka, Kansas calling for the school district to reverse its racial segregation policy. The case is initiated by Esther S. Brown, a Jewish activist who is appalled by the conditions of the local Black schools. Esther finds Oliver Brown, whose daughter walks a mile to get to school even though a white school is closer, and recruits him as the lead plaintiff. The NAACP adds twelve other plaintiffs to the case, all Black parents representing twenty children with similar situations.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund work overtime preparing briefs, recruiting plaintiffs, and writing and pleading cases. On every level of the legal work Afro-Americans and Jews work together. The team is made up of notable Afro-American and Jewish lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall (Black) and Jack Greenberg (Jewish). Jewish organizations involved with the Brown Case file supporting briefs, as they do in every other significant civil rights case.
On 17 May, the U.S. Supreme Court decides unanimously that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” The court orders steps be taken to destroy unequal education in 21 states with segregated classrooms. This is a major victory paving the way to full integration and a landmark of what the Black-Jewish alliance can achieve.
Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a public bus after being told by the bus driver to move for a white passenger. Parks action starts the Montgomery bus boycott. The civil rights struggle switches battlefields from the courts to the street. The masses are mobilized for direct action: bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and other acts of civil disobedience. Martin Luther King becomes the voice of the movement and his method of nonviolent resistance the strategy.
1958 (Synagogue Bombings)
As the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum and Jews’ activity in the movement becomes more known, there are a rash of synagogue bombings all over the South. Ten percent of the bombings by white supremacists from 1954-1959 have Jewish targets. The bombings are meant to send a warning to Rabbis active in the Civil Rights Movement. One such incident happens in October 1958. White supremacists dynamite Atlanta’s oldest Jewish synagogue because the Rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, is an outspoken advocate for integration and equality.
1960-1961 (Sit-ins and Freedom Rides)
The Civil Rights Movement gains national attention with the start of “sit-ins” across the South. The sit-in technique is a form of nonviolent protest where student demonstrators sit quietly at segregated lunch counters. They are often violently removed and arrested. Demonstrators are forced to endure terrible conditions but refuse to post bail, sticking their jailers with the burden of prison space. The activists form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to take these tactics of nonviolent confrontation further.
Some activists go on to participate in Freedom Rides to protest the segregation of public transportation despite a Supreme Court ban. There are around 440 Freedom Riders total, half of which are white and half of these being Jewish. Also more than half the civil rights lawyers that come south to make their services available to arrested demonstrators are Jewish. This is remarkable considering that just 2% of the entire population in the U.S. is Jewish.
On 4 May, 1961 the first group of thirteen Freedom Riders leaves Washington, D.C. for New Orleans. They are met by violent white mobs as are all the subsequent Freedom Riders. The Freedom Riders gain national sympathy and support, forcing President Kennedy to order the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue a desegregation order and ensure compliance.
1961 (Interfaith Clergy Freedom Ride)
Rabbi Martin Freedman organizes the Interfaith Clergy Freedom Ride which brings together four rabbis and fourteen ministers. In June, the clergy board a bus in Washington D.C. and head toward Tallahasse, Florida with the aim of integrating facilities along the way. At the Tallahasse airport restaurant on their way home the clergy are denied service because they refuse to serve Afro-Americans. The clergy refuse to leave until they are served. They sit and wait for two days without eating before the local police arrest them for unlawful assembly. Jailed for four days, the group refuses to post bail.
Dr. King requests clergy to join him in Albany, Georgia for a ‘prayer pilgrimage’ with the goal of ending segregation. 75 rabbis and ministers meet outside Albany’s city hall, praying, singing hymns, and reading scripture. In a short time the clergy are placed under arrest to the cheers of angry crowds. It is the largest incarceration of clergy at once in American History.
1963 (March on Washington)
Plans are made for a March on Washington to demand President Kennedy and Congress to support legislation granting Blacks full rights. Jews like Rabbi Joachim Prinz are important to the march’s behind-the-scenes preparation. The AJC endorses the march and encourages all its members to attend. Despite external pressure to call the march off, on 28 August, 250,000 white and black Americans from all over the nation gather on the mall. The march is credited as a major factor leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voting Rights Act of 1965.
1964 (Defense of Soviet Jewry)
Under Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the situation for Jews in the Soviet Union is worsening as they are singled out for extraordinary punishments. In April, the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry is formed to highlight the Soviet mistreatment of Jews and spearhead a national campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Many Afro-American leaders take time out of their busy schedules for their own movement to participate in the conference and voice their solidarity (e.g. Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph). Roy Wilkins, the executive director of the NAACP, notes parallels between Blacks’ struggle in the U.S. and Jews’ struggle in the Soviet Union. Dr. King commands Blacks to not be silent on the issue: “I cannot stand idly by even though I live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro, and fail to be concerned about what happens to my brothers and sisters that happen to be Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them, happens to me—and to you, and we must be concerned.”
1964 (March in St. Augustine, Florida)
In the summer of 1964 civil rights leaders rally to St. Augustine, Florida, a town known for overtly ignoring integration laws. Each night, for several months, protestors meet at a local church and march peacefully to the old slave market. They gain national sympathy as the world watches chain-wielding Klansmen beat the marchers who refuse to strike back. At the time of the St. Augustine marches, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is in a meeting. They receive a telegram from Dr. King asking rabbis to join him. Sixteen leave the conference for St. Augustine to march in solidarity with their Black brothers. They are promptly arrested and taken to jail with Dr. King. In July, President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, outlawing segregation in any public accommodations. The law is a direct result of the civil rights protests and demonstrations in the South.
1964 (Mississippi Summer Project)
In Mississippi, civil rights leaders focus on inequities in voter registration. The Mississippi Summer Project is created to mass register Afro-Americans to vote who had until now been excluded from voter registration. Over 1,000 volunteers travel south to help the registration campaign. A disproportionate amount—2/3 by one estimate—of white volunteers are Jewish. Three of the civil rights workers become martyrs for the cause. Michael Schwerner (Jewish; age 24), James Chaney (Black; age 21), and Andrew Goodman (Jewish; age 21) disappear in Mississippi on 21 June. The case requires federal interference before their bodies are located 6 weeks later and it is confirmed that they were murdered by Klan members. The case of Afro-Americans and Jews dying in a common grave brings widespread attention to the extensive partnership between the two communities working for civil rights.
1965 (Selma to Montgomery)
The voter registration drive is moved to Montgomery, Alabama. There Afro-Americans are prevented from registering because of outrageous voting requirements (poll taxes, literacy requirements, etc) and opposition by a local sheriff. Dr. King and other civil rights leaders organize a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to petition Governor Wallace to end Alabama’s discriminatory registration process. After being driven back violently on several occasions by Alabama police, a group of 25,000 marchers finally reach Montgomery. Rabbi Joshua Heschel marches right at the head of the line, linking arms with Dr. King, his dear friend. In recalling the greatest day ever for civil rights, King says “I saw Protestants, Catholics, and Jews standing and singing and praying together. I saw them marching together from Selma to Montgomery. So, I can say that the church, the synagogues are giving support to the movement now in a way that we haven’t known it before.” Soon after the Selma-Montgomery March President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to become law.
1966 (Emergence of Black Power)
In the late 1960s comes the emergence of the Black Power movement and the weakening of the traditional Black-Jewish alliance. Black Power rejects the nonviolent and racially integrating tactics of Dr. King and puts its emphasis on self-determination, self-defense, and racial pride. Stokely Carmichael rises to the SNCC chairmanship in 1966 and becomes one of the first major advocates for Black Power. Carmichael wants to get rid of white influence in civil rights organizations so he asks all white staff, including many Jews, to go home. Until now, Jews were perceived as the white group most sympathetic to Blacks. Black nationalists, however, no longer perceive Jews as allies but instead as Whites with all the inherent privileges of that skin color. Black nationalist leaders like Malcolm X further alienate Jews with their anti-Semitic rhetoric. In reference to the Holocaust, Malcolm X says “everybody’s wet-eyed over a handful of Jews who brought it on themselves.”
1967 (Jews turn inward)
In reaction to Israel’s Six-day war the Black-Jewish alliance breaks down further. Now it is Jews who are turning inward and changing their agenda to focus on self-preservation. Threatened with extinction by Arab armies on all sides, American Jews fear the worst only to rejoice in the dramatic victory of Israel as she dramatically beats back her aggressors. The victory reenergizes Jewish pride and support for Israel.
Senior civil rights leaders like Dr. King and Randolph rush to Israel’s defense, denouncing the Arab attack and issuing declarations of support for Israel’s independence and freedom. The Black Nationalist leaders however articulate the opposite since they more easily identify with dark-skinned Arabs than the white Israelis. The SNCC, under Carmichael’s leadership, jumps on the opportunity to denounce Zionism and assume a pro-Palestinian position. a
1968 (Ocean Hill – Brownsville School Controversy)
In the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn the schools are made up of all Afro-American or Puerto Rican students and mostly white teachers. In an effort to decentralize control of the area’s public schools, community leaders are placed in charge of their own school district. The new school administration promptly fires 18 white teachers in violation of their union contract. The United Federation of Teachers calls for citywide strikes and for 55 days, 900 schools are closed and over 1 million pupils are without teachers. The strike severely divides the city. Black parents are against the Jewish teachers and union leaders because they feel they are not willing to share control of the schools. Because most of the fired teachers are Jewish, the Jewish community feels the incident is evidence of black anti-Semitism. The controversy pushes Afro-Americans and Jews into full retreat.
1968 (Assassination of Martin Luther King)
Senior civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin, Randolph, and others form Black Americans in Support of Israel Committee (BASIC), which includes an array of Afro-American leaders from established organizations.
1978 (Afro-American support of PLO)
American Ambassador to the UN Andrew Young has an unauthorized meeting with a representative from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). President Carter forces Young to resign from his post because the Ambassador broke with U.S. policy. As the highest ranking Black man in the U.S. and a hero in the Afro-American community, Young’s forced resignation angers Blacks. Young’s supporters believe Jewish organizations pressured Carter into firing him even though Young assures them they did not. Jews believe the Black community sold out Israel by supporting the PLO even though none of the major civil rights groups did anything openly hostile towards Israel. Dangerous generalizations further weaken the once fruitful Black-Jewish relationship.
In an interview with a friend at the Washington Post Rev. Jesse Jackson refers to Jews as “Hymies” and to New York City as “Hymietown.” When the racial slurs are made public the Jewish community is deeply hurt. Jackson later apologizes for the remark but the damage is already done. Many in the Jewish community remain deeply suspicious of Jackson and withdraw their support for his presidential bid.
1985 (Rebuilding the alliance)
On 6 February, twenty-four Black and Jewish Congressional leaders meet on Capitol Hill in a closed conference. The purpose of the meeting is to hold a frank dialogue on the state of Black-Jewish relations.
American Jews are prominent in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.
1991 (Crown Heights Riots)
In the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, an orthodox Jewish man looses control of the wheel and hits two Afro-American children, killing one and injuring the other. Mistaking the accidental killing as purposeful, Afro-American onlookers pull the man out of his car and beat him. For three days, angry Black mobs shouting “Get the Jews!” roam the streets attacking Jewish residents, setting fire to cars, and looting stores. One group of angry teens stabs to death an Orthodox Rabbinical student. The police are finally able to calm the situation. Though the riots are not replicated elsewhere and seem to be unique to Crown Heights, the event is burned into the memories of Black and Jewish communities.
1991 (Louis Farrakhan)
Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam publishes The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, a book detailing the involvement of Jews in the Atlantic slave trade. The book is an anti-Semitic propaganda tool which purposefully exaggerates and misrepresents the role of Jews in the enslavement of Blacks.
Glenn Plummer Ministries allies with The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to form Project FIBA (Fellowship of Israel and Black America). FIBA’s purpose is to nurture, develop, expand, and call the Afro-American community into its natural friendship and alliance with Israel and American Jews and vice-versa.
2007 (Sect. Rice and the Palestinians)
To the dismay of pro-Israel Christians and Jews, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice compares the Palestinian cause to that of Blacks in the segregated South. Rice says as a Black child who grew up in Alabama, “I know what it is like to hear that you cannot go on a road or through a checkpoint because you are Palestinian … I understand the feeling of humiliation and powerlessness.” Rice also compares Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to Reverend Martin Luther King as a man committed to peace for his people.
Afro-Americans and Jewish Americans have analyzed the status of their relationship for the past three decades, trying to determine the ultimate source of its deterioration. Claims of an irreconcilable split are over exaggerated. Nonetheless, there is no doubt the condition of Black-Jewish relations now is but a remnant of the former alliance. For a new coalition to be rebuilt two things must happen. Younger Afro-Americans and Jews who were not around during the Golden Age must hear of the genuine partnership the two communities once had. For those who remember all to well the bitter incidents that drove the communities apart, it is time to heal the wounds and reopen dialogue. There is still plenty of cooperation Blacks and Jews can rally around, one of them being Israel. If the two groups come together to stand for Israel, they do not have to look far in their own history for a productive model of collaboration.