Charles F. Wittenstein was born on January 16, 1928. He received his B.A. from Columbia University in 1949 and his J.D. (also from Columbia) in 1952. That same year he married Elinor (nee Heyman), with whom he raised their three children. Wittenstein began his career in Atlanta at the law firm of Heyman, Abrams and Young, where he practiced for five years. The remainder of his career he devoted to the civil rights movement, serving in numerous roles for the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
The following speech takes place at the Hungry Club, a weekly gathering of black elites at a local YMCA in Atlanta. Wittenstein makes deft use of voting data to convince the audience that Jewish businessmen have embraced the civil rights agenda despite their ostensible similarities to segregationist commercial elites. While constructing a plausible interest-based profile for local Jewish concerns, he deftly outlines the different roles the American Jewish Committee plays in contrast with prominent civil rights umbrella organizations such as the NAACP, SNCC, and the SCLC. While those representative groups may take legal action because of their aggrieved constituencies, Jewish groups are more useful ushering in the new era once the courts enfranchise the aggrieved. Implicit in this analysis is Wittenstein’s critical stance toward Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and the SCLC’s strategic failures in Albany, Georgia, where organizational movements were not properly aligned with necessary litigation. This analysis also identifies the Kennedy administration’s Tuscaloosa strategy (litigation with mobilization) as a model approach to civil rights progress.
Hungry Club of Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
After the last General Election, a Republican candidate for Congress in Memphis, Tennessee, who had gone down to defeat with Barry Goldwater was bemoaning his fate: “I had hoped against hope that the Jewish group would see things my way. I am a businessman. They are businessmen. Apparently I didn’t succeed. I am amazed that I couldn’t. If ever there was a group that should be conservative, they should.” It is not difficult to see where this misguided man went wrong. He correctly identified the Jews of Memphis with a certain economic class, then incorrectly assumed they would behave like other members of that economic class. But Jews are different, and it is this difference—its extent and cause—that I want to discuss with you this afternoon.
In that same election, Jews voted about 90% for Johnson and against Goldwater—more than any other white group, whether defined by income, region, religion, or ethnic character, and almost as much as the Negroes.