A Different Kind of Freedom Ride:
American Jews and the Struggle for Racial Equality,
IN NOVEMBER 1971, Cincinnati's Jewish community, like dozens of others across the nation, welcomed the long-awaited Freedom Bus. In the midst of a two-month journey to the nation's capital, organizers of this “freedom ride” hoped to bring attention to repeated, flagrant, and abusive violations of human rights at the hands of an unsympathetic government. They staged rallies, gave speeches, and collected petitions for their cause, hoping to spark a grassroots movement for social change.
This bus did not carry black and white Americans risking their personal safety to fight racial segregation. These “freedom riders” lacked training in the nonviolent tactics of Gandhi and King. When they arrived in city after city, they did not protest the conditions of African Americans in a racist United States. They appealed instead for help in a struggle particular to the Jewish community: the rescue of Soviet Jews from the anti-Semitic policies of the Communist superpower. 1
The Cincinnati protesters, two Soviet Jewish emigres escorted by several American hosts, resembled the original freedom riders in name only. Their decision to invoke the language of the civil rights movement reflected their newfound enthusiasm for ethnic nationalist approaches to liberal reform. In the 1950s and early 1960s, American Jews joined African-American civil rights workers in accommodationist-based protests of racial segregation in the deep South. They lobbied Congress for a federal law protecting blacks and celebrated Lyndon Johnson's assent to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the Voting Rights Act passed the following year, Jews cheered. Legislative victories achieved in the 1960s what constitutional amendments failed to win a century earlier: the end to state-sponsored racial discrimination. 2
Despite the impressive gains enjoyed by civil rights workers, legal protection did not always translate into an end to racial discrimination. Eliminating segregation in the rural South proved a daunting task. Achieving lasting economic, political, and social parity between the races seemed almost impossible. In the mid-1960s, civil rights leaders pushed