The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s

The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s

The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s

The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s


These wide-ranging essays reveal the various roles played by southern rabbis in the struggle for black civil rights since Reconstruction The study of black-Jewish relations has become a hotbed of controversy, especially with regard to the role played by Jewish leaders during the Civil Rights movement. Did these leaders play a pivotal role, or did many of them, especially in the South, succumb to societal pressure and strive to be accepted rather than risk being persecuted? If some of these leaders did choose a quieter path, were their reasons valid? And were their methods successful?The contributors in this volume explore the motivations and subsequent behavior of rabbis in a variety of southern environments both before and during the civil rights struggle. Their research demonstrates that most southern rabbis indeed faced pressures not experienced in the North and felt the need to balance these countervailing forces to achieve their moral imperative. Individually, each essay offers a glimpse into both the private and public difficulties these rabbis faced in their struggle to achieve good. Collectively, the essays provide an unparalleled picture of Jewish leadership during the civil rights era.


In October 1992 several papers on southern rabbis and black civil rights were presented at the Southern Jewish Historical Society convention in Montgomery, Alabama. My colleague Berkley Kalin explained the Memphis experience of Rabbis Ettelson and Fineshriber, and Patricia LaPointe brought the discussion of that city into the heyday of the civil rights era with her work on James Wax. As so often happens, discussion continued in the hallways. Henry Green was researching Rabbi Leon Kronish of Miami, and Lee Shai Weissbach was knowledgeable about rabbis in the small towns of Kentucky. A UCLA graduate student, Marc Dollinger, gave a paper, based on his dissertation in progress, analyzing the experiences of Jews with the civil rights movement in the North and South. I compared my research on Atlanta's rabbis with Kalin's findings. Excitement mounted as those of us conversing realized that rabbinical participation in the civil rights movement in the South had begun earlier and had been far more widespread than the historiography indicated. Kalin and I agreed on a collaborative effort to introduce a more extensive body of research, and Malcolm MacDonald of the University of Alabama Press, who also attended the conference, encouraged the project.

One week after the Montgomery conference, I attended a session of the Southern Historical Association in Atlanta, where Raymond Mohl and Murray Friedman gave presentations on black-Jewish relations. Both speakers stressed the positive participation of Jews during the civil rights era. Pointed commentary was supplied by John Bracey, Jr., who questioned, among other things, the degree of involvement and motivation of Jews vis-à-vis the civil rights movement. The animated discussions I encountered at this session reinforced my resolve to gather under one cover as much of this important scholarship as I could.

Yet another opportunity presented itself during the weekend of 31 March 1995. I gave the keynote address at a conference that Kalin had organized at the University of Memphis, and many of the scholars whose work appears in this volume presented their findings.

Among the first detailed case studies of both well-known and hitherto little-known individuals, The Quiet Voices testifies to a far more widespread activism on the part of southern rabbis in the modern civil rights movement than has been acknowledged. These rabbis were motivated . . .

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