Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights complicates the traditional White Nationalist narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and the Jewish Question.
At the outset, Webb takes us on a tour of Southern history and reminds us that Jews were staunch supporters of secession, served in prominent roles in the Confederate government, never played much of a role in the abolitionist movement, and even condemned and in some cases opposed Reconstruction.
The South was settled by Sephardic Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries who were accustomed to the culture of slavery and white supremacy due to their background in the slave trade in the Caribbean and Latin America. Ashkenazi Jews settled in Southern cities in smaller numbers in the 19th century and typically embraced the traditional pattern of harmonious Jew-Gentile relations.
By the early twentieth century, the South was the least anti-Semitic region of the United States. In the Old South, the planter class had traditionally opposed ethnic and religious bigotry, and accepted Jews and Catholics into the Southern elite in order to maintain a united front for slavery and white supremacy. In the New South, Protestant Christians admired Jews as God’s “Chosen People.”
Southern Jews reciprocated by accepting the South’s traditional racial mores (even if they privately objected to those mores) as the price of access to the commercial and social opportunities in mainstream White Southern society. It was also a way of deflecting attention away from Jews and onto blacks as the region’s threatening minority.
When the Civil Rights Movement erupted in the 1950s, Southern Jews had done almost nothing to advance the cause of negro equality. Instead, they had grown rich during the Jim Crow era by specializing in retail trade where they had enforced the local segregation laws for generations in their department stores in Southern cities like Little Rock, Atlanta, Birmingham, and New Orleans.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a celebrity during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, Montgomery’s own Jewish community refused to support the boycott. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham in 1962, they were condemned as uninvited outside agitators by Birmingham’s Jewish community.
In the 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham in which Bull Connor used water hoses and attack dogs on black school children, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth were attempting to integrate several of the Jewish-owned downtown department stores. In fact, Rabbi Milton Grafman was one of the White moderates condemned by the Rev. Martin Luther King in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
In 1965, hundreds of Northern Jews came to Selma to participate in the Selma-to-Montgomery March, where Jews owned the downtown department stores which were being boycotted and disrupted with sit ins by local civil rights activists. Selma’s Jews resented the national Jewish organizations which were supporting the Civil Rights Movement and attracting negative publicity to the city.
In Mississippi, the hundreds of Northern Jews who came to Hattiesburg to participate in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer aroused the ire of the local Jewish community. In the Mississippi Delta, the local Jews created their own Jewish organization, and denounced the New York Jews who were fomenting social revolution in their midst.
In South Carolina, the Jewish Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Solomon Blatt, was a key leader in the massive resistance movement. A minority of Southern Jews like Sol Tepper of Selma, Charles Bloch of Georgia, and Al Binder of Mississippi were outspoken segregationists. The majority of Southern Jews were social chameleons like Dick Rich of Atlanta and Louis Pizitz of Birmingham who privately supported the Civil Rights Movement, but who did almost nothing to advance the cause.
Of the approximately 200 Southern rabbis who could have taken a public stand in favor of desegregation, a total of 9 were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement: 3 of them were born outside the United States, 3 were born in the South, and 3 were Northern transplants. In Atlanta alone, 312 White ministers supported Rabbi Jacob Rothschild in opposing the closing of Atlanta’s public schools.
The White resistance in the South was divided over the Jewish Question and how to respond to desegregation. The Citizens’ Councils were mainstreamers who believed in economic boycotts, social ostracism, and electing strong segregationists to public office. They accepted Jews as members and purged anti-Semites from their ranks in order to maintain an air of respectability.
The Klan and other vanguardist elements preferred to bomb synagogues and black churches and engage in other types of violence. In most cases, the synagogues which were targeted had refused to support the Civil Rights Movement, and the strategy backfired by creating sympathy for Jews which only further emboldened them. The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was a public relations disaster that expedited the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the end, the White resistance failed to preserve segregation, but its demise had little to do with Southern Jews who were paralyzed by fear and sat on the sidelines through most of the conflict. The plight of the segregationists can be seen most clearly in the career of George Wallace who was defeated, not by Alabama’s Jews, but by federal court orders, federal troops, federal laws, a federal electorate and finally by a bullet in the back from a deranged Northern leftist.
If George Wallace had been running for President of the Confederacy, he would have won in a landslide and Jim Crow would have been saved. Instead, Martin Luther King Day is now a federal holiday in Alabama and the “Stand in the Schoolhouse” door has become something we apologize for in this state.
Clive Webb reminds us that Jim Crow was destroyed from the outside, not sabotaged from within.