Brave and tragic heroes of civil rights

By Robert Philpot, June 26, 2014
Flames of hate: a 'freedom rider' bus firebombed in Alabama in May 1961

Flames of hate: a 'freedom rider' bus firebombed in Alabama in May 1961

On Wednesday 24 June 1964, Robert and Carolyn Goodman received a postcard from their son, Andrew, at their New York apartment. "I have arrived safely in Meridian, Mississippi," the 20-year-old student wrote. "This is a wonderful town and the weather is fine." It was postmarked the previous Sunday - the day on which, some time after 10pm, Andrew was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, alongside two fellow civil-rights workers, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney.

Goodman, Schwerner, a 24-year-old fellow Jew, and Chaney, a 21-year-old African-American, had been delivered into the hands of a Klan lynch mob by a local deputy sheriff.

Earlier that spring, a speech by Allard Lowenstein, a civil-rights activist, had inspired Goodman to join hundreds of other students in the "Freedom Summer", an effort to register black voters in Mississippi, where intimidation and discriminatory laws kept over 90 per cent of those eligible off of the electoral roll.

Schwerner and his wife, Rita, had arrived in Meridian six months previously to lay the groundwork. By the time Goodman arrived in the state, Schwerner's activities in Meridian had attracted the attention of the Klan, which had labelled him a "special target".

While violence, and the threat of it, was an everyday occurrence for African-Americans in Mississippi - during the search for the three young men, the bodies of eight missing black men were discovered - Schwerner and Goodman's fate was tragic but rare. That they were both Jewish, however, was not. Estimates suggest that Jews made up half of the young people who participated in Freedom Summer.

On 2 July 1964, as the search for Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney continued to dominate the headlines, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which ended legalised segregation in the American south.

Fifty years on, the act remains the highpoint, if not the culminating moment, of America's civil rights movement -- in which Jews played a central role.

Martin Luther King understood that it was essential to enlist whites to achieve his dream - and Jews were the most important constituency

Clarence Jones, a black lawyer who began working with Martin Luther King in the early 1960s, says the civil rights leader understood that enlisting whites was essential to realising his dream. "Of that white majority," Jones suggests, "the most important constituent part was the Jewish community."

But Jews were not new recruits to the civil rights cause. Columbia University professor Joel Spingarn helped establish the National Association for the Advance of Coloured People in 1909 and served as its chairman for 25 years. Jews were heavily involved in the Urban League, formed in 1911 to help black migrants from the rural south, while Jewish philanthropists gave generously to African-American causes.

Julius Rosenwald, the chairman of Sears Roebuck, helped fund the building of nearly 5,000 schools across the south. Rosenwald's explanation for his motivations spoke for many others: "The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer."

Jews were also prominent in attempts to challenge some of the worst injustices faced by blacks in the south. Samuel Leibowitz, a Brooklyn lawyer, took up the famous case of the "Scottsboro boys", nine African-American youths falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931, helping to bring to national prominence the all-white juries and unequal justice which pervaded the region. Two years previously, Louis Isaac Jaffe won a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot denouncing lynching.

As a southern Jew, Jaffe's willingness to publicly take on white supremacy was, however, unusual. In his History of Jews in America, Howard Sachar writes: "For Jews living in the south, the issue of racial integration posed unsettling questions. They constituted barely one per cent of the region's total population. Among their white neighbours, they had long been accepted as 'honorary white Protestants'." Southern Jews, he believes, felt obliged to "walk a narrow line". Many feared reawakening the Klan's vicious antisemitism.

In 1954, the supreme court's Brown vs Board of Education ruling, which struck down segregation in schools, increased the pressure still further. While most southern rabbis responded to the desire of their congregations to avoid embroiling the community in the ensuing controversy, very few Jews joined the ranks of those whites who determined to defend segregation.

A handful of southern rabbis decided they could not remain silent: Rabbi Ira Sanders of Little Rock testified before the Arkansas senate against segregationist bills in 1957, while rabbis in Jackson, Atlanta, Alexandria and Birmingham publicly supported integration campaigns. Their efforts were met by bombings of synagogues and death threats from the Klan.

If southern Jews were largely invisible in the civil rights movement, the same could not be said of those who lived in the north. Research about the impact of segregation on black children, which the supreme court cited in its Brown vs Board of Education ruling, had been commissioned by the American Jewish Committee. Alongside the Anti-Defamation League and the liberal American Jewish Congress, it filed briefs in legal cases regarding housing, employment, education and public accommodation.

Action in the courts was supplemented by action on the streets. At Martin Luther King's side during black America's long walk to freedom were his "twin Jewish lawyers", Stanley Levison and Harry Wachtel. Levison, writes Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1953-1961, was King's "closest white friend and the most reliable colleague of his life". Speechwriter, publicist and fundraiser, Levison tapped the American Jewish Congress' mailing list for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But, as Branch suggests, Wachtel "opened new and larger worlds. Whereas Levison knew a host of union officials, ideologues, and activists, Wachtel knew how to get high government officials on the "phone and how to touch corporate officers for five-figure donations to B'nai B'rith. He was big time."

The arrival of Jack Kennedy in the White House in 1961 raised liberal hopes that the federal government would finally join the civil rights cause. With Rabbi Joachim Prinz at its helm, in June 1961 the American Jewish Congress provided the new president with an eight-point civil rights plan. When it detected Kennedy soft-pedalling for fear of upsetting the powerful southern senate barons who would decide the fate of his legislative programme, the AJC went on the attack. "Gradualism as a means of achieving racial equality," it charged in a press release, "has proven a folly and a failure."

Two years later, in May 1963, 19 conservative rabbis flew to Birmingham, Alabama to join King in an attempt to integrate one of America's most racially divided cities. "Our people are your people," one told the demonstrators. Amid TV images of police violence directed against the peaceful protesters, Kennedy's patience with gradualism finally snapped. Declaring civil rights "a moral issue", he unveiled a comprehensive civil rights package. Rallying in support of the president's proposals, King led the famous March on Washington in August 1963, with Rabbi Prinz at his side.

Jews were at the forefront of the effort to get congressional approval for the legislation under an umbrella organisation, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

One of its two principal lobbyists was union lawyer Joe Rauh, while its executive director was Arnold Aronson, a former head of the Bureau on Jewish Employment Problems. Aronson's deputy was a journalist, Marvin Caplan. Clay Risen, author of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, notes that the three Jews were "crucial to the eventual enactment of the landmark bill".

On 4 August, the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were discovered in an earthen dam. The parents of the three men asked that they be buried side by side. Forbidden by Mississippi's segregation laws, Chaney was buried alone.

Almost a year to the day later, Johnson signed legislation sweeping away the impediments to voting which Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had gone to Mississippi to highlight and resist. "As much as any single factor it was the nationwide attention given to the discovery of their corpses that accelerated passage of the Voting Rights Act 1965," argues Sachar.

Thus, while Johnson's signature may be on the act, indelibly associated with it are the names of Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney.

Robert Philpot is Director of Progress

Last updated: 2:47pm, June 26 2014