Fight against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights

By Scopino, A. J., Jr. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Fight against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights


Scopino, A. J., Jr., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. By Clive Webb. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. Pp. xvii, 307; $50.00, cloth.)

In Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, author Clive Webb has made a significant contribution in explaining the tenuous relationship between Southern blacks and Jews during the modern Civil Rights Movement. As both groups shared a common history of suffering, the potential alliance of Jews and African Americans appeared natural and fitting. On the surface, at least, there appeared to exist "something of a symbiotic relationship"(p. 35) between the two groups. Yet, this alliance was never realized. According to Webb's findings, Southern Jews were indistinguishable from other Southern whites in their attitudes and behavior toward blacks and desegregation.

Constituting a small minority of the population by the middle of the 20th century (about 230,000 in the mid-1950s), Southern Jews enjoyed relative freedom in the social, political and economic life of the South. In times of crises, Jews stood shoulder to shoulder with the majority of Southerners. In the antebellum period, Jews supported chattel slavery. During the Civil War, many Southern Jews served in the military. Some occupied positions in the Confederate government, and Jewish merchants supplied needed goods to the Southern cause. When the Confederacy collapsed, Jews shared in the suffering with their fellow Southerners.

Despite their contributions and loyalty to their region, at no time were Jews fully absorbed into Southern society. As members of a minority faith, Jews remained on the margins of Gentile society. Recurrent outbursts of anti-Semitism sobered Jews as to the limitations of their acceptance in the region. Jews could be convenient scapegoats. During the Civil War, for example, when the Union blockade of 1862 began to squeeze the Southern economy, Jewish merchants were harassed when they were forced to raise prices on goods. Following the death of a young employee in 1913, a mob lynched Jewish factory owner Leo Frank. Jews became targets of the Klan in the 1920s and Fascist groups in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s, a series of bombings throughout the South destroyed Jewish temples, synagogues, community centers and religious schools. Following the bombings of the 1950s, Southern Jews were confronted with another crisis. By the 1960s, Northern Jews had eagerly joined in the direct action campaigns that were sweeping the South. In 1964, many Northern Jews participated in the Mississippi Summer Project, a massive educational and voter registration initiative sponsored by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). The murder of three student activists that summer, two of whom happened to be Jewish, heightened fears among the region's resident Jews. Southern Jews charged that the involvement of their Northern brethren was counterproductive and potentially dangerous to Jews living in the South.

Threats, damage to property and even physical harm could be unleashed upon Southern Jews with the least provocation.

As the result of this ever-present threat, "The majority of southern Jews failed to make a constructive contribution to the Civil Rights struggle. As the forces of anti-Semitism stirred in response to the desegregation crisis," claims Webb, "Southern Jews became increasingly alarmed for their personal safety" (pp. …

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