Local Rifts over Jewish Support for African Americans in the Pre-Civil Rights Era

By Fobanjong, John | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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Local Rifts over Jewish Support for African Americans in the Pre-Civil Rights Era


Fobanjong, John, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

The history of the modern civil rights movement in America is undeniably the story of cooperation among Blacks, Jews, and other progressive whites in the struggle to gain constitutional rights for Blacks and other dominated minorities. It is a history that is as old as the founding of the American nation, but a story that would reach revolutionary proportions in the 20th century. While the 1960s is frequently described as "the civil rights decade," the legal, intellectual, and organizational seeds that contributed to the success of the modern civil rights struggle were actually planted back at the turn of the 20th century. Foremost in the planting of these seeds was the historic commitment of American Jews to the promotion of civil rights and racial equality. Not only was this commitment expressed through financial support, it was also expressed in kind and in various other forms of personal sacrifice. As far back as to the era of institutionalized slavery, individual members of the Jewish community, in spite of the risk of personal persecution, frequently provided assistance to Blacks in their struggle for liberation. This was the case in the early 1800s when two Jewish brothers paid to liberate a Black man who had been kidnapped from the doorsteps of his home in New Jersey and sold into slavery in the South (Whitman, 2-6).

An Established Legacy of Jewish Support for the Black Cause

It was largely with the help of Jewish philanthropy that the largest and longest lasting civil rights organization in the U.S., the NAACP, was founded in 1909. Among its founding parents were a number of Jewish leaders, including Henry Moskowitz, Lilian Wald, Emil Hirsch, and Stephen Wise--all of whose signatures remain to this day appended to the organization's founding charter. For nearly a quarter century, from 1914 to 1939, Joel E. Spingarn, another Jewish leader, would serve as its chairman. Financial contributions that supported the activities of the NAACP in these early years came mainly from such wealthy German-American Jews as William and Julius Rosenwald, Herbert Lehman, and Felix Warburg. Indeed, Julius Rosenwald, alone, funded the building of 5,337 elementary schools for Blacks across the South. These schools contributed to the education of more than 650,000 African Americans--approximately 25 to 40 percent of Blacks who were educated in the South by 1932 (Kaufman, 2). During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the historic incident that launched the modern civil rights movement, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) received significant donations from northern Jewish organizations (Kaufman, 20-31, 91). MIA is a local grassroots organization that was formed in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to provide the networking that enabled Blacks to live through the boycott. Under the visionary leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, its founding president, it developed self-help strategies that enabled Blacks to sustain the boycott. Though very little is known outside of Alabama, MIA was indispensable to the success of the bus boycott. It worked in mobilizing the local community to expand their demonstrations into other areas of the civil rights straggle. Several other prominent civil rights organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress for Racial Equality received much of their financial support from northern Jewish philanthropists at the height of the modern civil rights movement in the sixties (Kaufman, 63).

As wealthy Jewish donors contributed money, talent, and organizational support, young Jewish activists contributed their time, youth and energy. More than two-thirds of the white freedom riders, and over one-third of the volunteers for the campaign for voter registration in the 1960s, were young Jewish students. All in all, an astounding 96 percent of the national Jewish community supported President Kennedy's decision to dispatch federal troops to help enforce desegregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1961 (Kaufman, 19, 91).

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