Jews and Blacks in America: Jews and Blacks Forged a Political Alliance in the Early 20th Century That Led to the Civil Rights Movement. This Historic Bond Broke Apart in the Late 1960s. Barack Obama's Election as President Has Brought Us Full Circle. Moment Magazine Looks Backs at One Hundred Years of History, 1909-2009

Moment, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Jews and Blacks in America: Jews and Blacks Forged a Political Alliance in the Early 20th Century That Led to the Civil Rights Movement. This Historic Bond Broke Apart in the Late 1960s. Barack Obama's Election as President Has Brought Us Full Circle. Moment Magazine Looks Backs at One Hundred Years of History, 1909-2009


"It would be impossible to record the contribution that Jewish people have made toward the Negro's struggle for freedom, it has been so great," the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. From fiery abolitionists and quiet philanthropists to eloquent rabbis and pragmatic leaders, American Jews helped lay the groundwork for achieving full citizenship for African-Americans. During the Civil War, some Jews fought on behalf of the Confederacy; others saw a parallel between Jewish bondage in Egypt and the chains worn by blacks. Jews who immigrated in the latter half of the 19th century were staunchly against slavery: many had been denied equal rights in Europe and recognized that the scourge of anti-Semitism would not be eradicated as long as racism persisted. And so, by the dawn of the last century, a partnership had been forged--one that culminated in the Selma Civil Rights march on March 21, 1965, about which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said: "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."

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After a 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois, a group of prominent blacks and whites signed a petition calling for action against racial intolerance and violence. "Silence under these conditions means tacit approval," they stated. The petition led to the National Negro Committee conference in 1909 at Lillian Wald's (bottom right) Henry Street Settlement House in New York, resulting in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP was the first of many civil rights groups in which blacks and Jews would work side by side toward equality and justice. Among attendees were W.E.B. Du Bois (top right), the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University and a professor of sociology. He became the driving force behind the NAACP. Also at the conference was Emil Hirsch (above left), a Reform rabbi from Chicago.

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Early NAACP leaders included Henry Moskowitz (bottom right), an outspoken New York civil rights activist and an advocate for the Jews of Europe, and Stephen Wise (top right), a New York City Reform rabbi and founder and president of the American Jewish Congress. Other Jews, including Wald, a nurse-turned-social activist, Jacob Billikopf, Herbert Lehman, Arthur and Joel Spingarn (above left) and Jacob Schiff played important roles in the NAACP and other organizations like the National Urban League. Spingarn, a Columbia University professor, was an active NAACP board member who became president of the organization in 1914. The NAACP still gives out an annual Spingarn medal, established in 1915, to African-Americans of great achievement. Spingarn's words, "I have a dream ... of a unified Negro population" are thought to have influenced King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech.

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Jews provided major financial support for civil rights causes. Julius Rosenwald (above left), the Chicago businessman who transformed Sears, Roebuck and Company into a national mail order colossus, was one of them. Inspired by his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, Rosenwald used his wealth to advance black education in the South, battling reluctant officials, defiant education departments and the Ku Klux Klan to build more than 5,300 public schools for black children. Working with the highly respected Booker T. Washington (above right), he made generous donations to black institutions of higher learning like Howard University, Dillard University and the Tuskegee Institute; provided training for black doctors and nurses; supported the building of YMCAs for blacks in inner cities; helped create the United Negro College Fund and funded the Rosenwald Fellowship, which supported black artists. When Rosenwald died in 1932, W.E. …

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Jews and Blacks in America: Jews and Blacks Forged a Political Alliance in the Early 20th Century That Led to the Civil Rights Movement. This Historic Bond Broke Apart in the Late 1960s. Barack Obama's Election as President Has Brought Us Full Circle. Moment Magazine Looks Backs at One Hundred Years of History, 1909-2009
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