Germany is persecuting Jews, Catholics, and Negroes. Hitler is a European Ku Kluxer--Hitler's Ku Kluxism is storing up for Germany mountains of hate that will deluge the Teutons for centuries.
-- "The German Hate," editorial, Baltimore Afro-American, 16 January 1937
Since long before the Depression Era and World War II, African American attitudes toward Jews had been a study in ambivalence. Identifying with the Bible's Chosen People, African Americans also held up modern-day Jews as a model of economic success, educational attainment, and group solidarity. But fusing envy with emulation and antagonism with admiration, they simultaneously projected a negative mirror image of Jews as a pariah people, stripped of divine favor and guilty of exploiting the blacks who patronized Jewish merchants in the South as well as the North.(1)
The rise of Herzlian Zionism added a new global dimension to this ambivalence. Black Nationalists began to see African Americans and American Jews as diaspora peoples each destined to renew ties with their ancestral homelands.(2) Edward Wilmot Blyden, a Caribbean-born pioneer Nationalist active before 1900 in both the United States and West Africa, saw in the Jewish national cause a blueprint for African redemption. The same positive identification inspired W.E.B. Du Bois, who worked closely with Jews such as Joel E. Spingarn, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and Lillian Wald in the pre-World War I founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois had to outgrow gradually the genteel antisemitism he had absorbed at fin de siecle German and American universities, but his own pride in African history and his pan-African ideology owed a formative debt both to anthropologist Franz Boas and to the Zionism that shaped the Balfour Declaration. By the time of the Second Pan-African Congress in 1919, Du Bois asserted a parallelism bordering on identity: "The African movement means to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews, the centralization of race effort and the recognition of a racial front."(3)
Yet that same year, 1919, witnessed the meteoric rise on the African American scene of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, whose "Black Zionism" increasingly pictured Jews as adversaries of black people in a zero-sum competition for wealth and power. Jailed for mail fraud and then deported as an undesirable alien, Garvey was an exile in London by 1933 when he declared "Hats off to Hitler the German Nazi" and "What the Negro needs is a Hitler." Later, after Nazi Germany blessed Italy's Ethiopian aggression and revealed its own African colonial ambitions, Garvey had second thoughts.(4)
"World politics ... are, in the final analysis, of secondary importance to American Negroes," Gunnar Myrdal observed during World War II, "except as avenues for the expression of dissatisfaction. What really matters to ... [the American Negro] is his treatment at home, in his own country."(5) Myrdal's conclusion is in need of elaboration and qualification.
The rise of Hitler came at the trough of Great Depression in the United States when isolationist sentiment was in the ascendant among the African American public as well as the general American public. This was true even of Paul Robeson, later the personification of Black-Jewish unity against fascism. In London in 1933 for the opening of All God's Chillun Got Wings, he maintained his persona as an apolitical artist and did not immediately see the significance of Hitler's installation as German Chancellor.(6)
Back in the United States, the black press carried stories about "the new Germany" starting in March, 1933. Within a week of the Reichstag election of March 5th, the Capitol's black newspaper, the Washington Tribune, featured the headline: "Jewish Massacres Feared Soon in Germany," with the subhead: "6,000,000 are Living in Fear with Action Imminent, London Paper Says." Just after the first official boycott of Jewish shops and businesses in Germany, the Pittsburgh Courier editorially deplored "Jewish Pogroms in Germany." Also appearing on April 1st was a widely-syndicated column by Howard University sociologist Kelly Miller, entitled "Hitler -- The German Ku Klux," describing Hitler as "the master Ku Kluxer of Germany."(7)
The NAACP crystallized anti-Nazi sentiment among African Americans during the summer of 1933, the year of the beating death, seen as racially motivated, of leftist Hilarius "Lari" Gilges by Nazi thugs in Dusseldorf. At the behest of Executive Secretary Walter White, W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis, drafted "a strong statement" denouncing "the vicious campaign of race prejudice directed against Jews and Negroes by the Hitler Government." NAACP Branch Director William Pickens, who personally aided the flight from Germany of a Jewish family whom he had met during a 1932 European vacation, urged the NAACP to become involved in the cause of refugee relief. Also involved was Roy Wilkins who succeeded Du Bois as editor of The Crisis and urged the NAACP to solicit Jewish support by pointing out "the similarity of the situation of the Negro in this country and the Jew in Germany."(8)
White newspapers in both the North and the South refused to equate Nazi antisemitism with American racism. African American opinion journals, which accused white America of a double standard, insisted precisely on this linkage. "Nothing has filled us with such unholy glee as Hitler and the Nordics," Du Bois wrote in 1933 in an uncharacteristically spiteful vein. "When the only `inferior' peoples were `niggers' it was hard to get the attention of the New York Times for little matters of race, lynchings and mobs. But now that the damned include the owner of the Times, moral indignation is perking up." Traveling to Germany aboard the S.S. St. Louis, the same ship that three years later carried German-Jewish refugees on their ill-starred odyssey to Cuba, Du Bois …