HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

The Blind Leading The Blind
© 2003, Micha Weinblatt

In many ways, the 1950s planted the seeds for the progress of the 60s. Glimpses of the rebellious generation, who would later find its way to the anti-War protests, are found throughout the fifties, specifically in movies like Rebel Without a Cause and more overtly in Jack Kerouac?s On The Road. The move away from conformity and towards more of an individualistic mentality began in the somewhat closed circles of the Beat movement and spread throughout America during the sixties. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Brown V. Board of Education were great precursors to the revolutionary civil rights legislation of the mid sixties. Whereas for most of the aforementioned societal changes, the 50s only exhibited hints of what was to come in the sixties, members of the civil rights movement built an impressive resume and did more than merely build a base for the 60s. The fifties marked a time when civil rights began to take front stage for many Americans and served as the call to action for African-Americans. Blacks decided that they would no longer sit around waiting for change, but that they were going to get up and right the wrongs of the North and South. Tremendous historical events, some which took days and some which took years, were planned and successfully carried out in this decade. Individuals were mobilized, great leaders emerged, and powerful organizations took center stage. But, the African-Americans were certainly not alone. Along with them stood Whites of all backgrounds and religions, of all social classes and perspectives, and of all reasons and justifications.

American Jews, who had the unenviable predicament of being both White and a persecuted minority, disproportionately involved themselves with the struggle against segregation. To Jews, civil injustices were all too familiar and common. Grappling with the events of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, Rabbi Yoachim Prinz, who survived the death camps of the Nazis, characterized the response for a large number of Jews for the need to pro-actively ensure equal rights for all,

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned in my life and under those tragic circumstances is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence. [1]

But for others, it was simply a means to a goal; it was a necessary stop on the path to ending unfair treatment of Jews because Jews in the 1950s were also discriminated against, albeit a lot less intensively. And while some saw the civil rights movement as an important way to ending oppression against Blacks and Jews, there were those who viewed it as a needless disturbance to the status-quo, one which could only hurt the Jewish situation in America. Although nationally Jews found themselves sitting side-by-side Blacks during the Freedom rides and shoulder to shoulder in the rallies, Jewish involvement in the movement was relatively a Mason-Dixon split, those in the North actively supported the cause and, for the most part, those in the South actively hushed their co-religionists in the North. Jews, in a sense, acted how they were prescribed socially to act -- in the North civil rights work was somewhat accepted, and so many Jews enthusiastically bent-over-backwards to ameliorate the situation of Blacks; but in the South it was frowned upon, and so most Jews did what they could to make sure neither they nor their representatives were at all involved in the fight.

Martin Luther King's rise to the top of the burgeoning civil rights movement started with a bus boycott that would span 382 days and would touch the lives of millions of Americans. On December 1, 1952 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person. This defiant act was certainly not spontaneous, but it helped to galvanize African-American support across Montgomery, and indeed across America; over 90% of Blacks refused to ride the buses.[2] This mass protest would lay the groundwork for the future "upheaval" which would characterize the 1950s form of resistance. Martin Luther King Jr. took the helm of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was in charge of the boycott, and it was under his leadership that the civil rights movement began to take a new direction. His approach to the civil injustices of the time was peaceful confrontation. Exploiting the new TV medium of the 1950s, King was able to reach millions more. The contrast of innocent Blacks against the antagonistic White policemen of the South struck a chord with the liberal Americans of the North. Playing on progressive ideals, King captured the attention of the left-leaning Americans, specifically those who found it difficult to express themselves in the federally-hunted Communist movement.

King, a religious man himself, frequently alluded to Biblical stories and themes. Instead of talking about the resurrection of Jesus and other themes which divided Christians and Jews, King focused on the Old Testament and the common values found in both religions. King himself declared that, "I draw not from Marxism or any other secular philosophy but from the prophets of Israel; from their passion for justice and cry for righteousness. The ethic of Judaism is integral to my Christian faith."[3] King concentrated on the shared belief of a compassionate God, as he once told a Rabbi, "You and I draw living waters from the same spring, from the belief in a God of love, Mercy and Justice. In the Jewish Prayer Book, I find words which express the essence of the Christian hope and promise: 'O may all, created in Thine image, recognize that they are brethren, so that, one in spirit and one in fellowship, they may be forever united before."[4] The belief that all men are created equal is a central belief of all denominations in Judaism and is the springboard for which most social action is justified. King coupled a shared belief in God with a similar notion of the brotherhood of all man to band Christians and Jews.

It seems as if King thoroughly understood the intricacies of the Jewish people and the divisions within the community. Jews define their Judaism through their connection to three distinct, yet connected, pillars -- the land of Israel, the religion itself, and the culture/people. Moses, a name often used to allude to Martin Luther King's resemblance to the prophet who led his people from slavery in to the Promised Land, did not restrict his speeches to theological sermons. From his famous speech where he declared that he "Has been to the Mountain Top" (a reference to a passage where God allows Moses to peer out in to Israel), to his citations of the Jewish God, to his recurrent parallels to the atrocities in Nazi Germany and the hardships both face in America, King magnificently covered all the bases.[5] Instead of focusing on the dividing principles of Christianity and Judaism, he chose to concentrate on that which brought people together, that all men are God's children and that justice is blind.

Although the Torah goes through great lengths to discuss the importance of helping one's neighbor and aiding the helpless, it was the Reform Jews -- the least observant and least entrenched in the Torah -- who dedicated the most efforts to the Civil Rights movement, not the Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Marc Schneier, in his book entitled Shared Dreams asks,

But what inducement was there for Jews to dedicate themselves to the black cause? With educational demands, economic and social constraints, and concern for the often-troubled, often-endangered State of Israel calling them, why should Jews extend themselves and even risk their lives for black social justice? Yet, in the United States where Jews were just two percent of the entire population, half to two-thirds of the whites who participated in the civil rights movement were Jews.[6]

He goes on to state that the majority of those involved in the fight to grant full rights to all citizens were Reform Jews. The Reform denomination, while not subscribing much to the laws and orders of the Torah, centered their belief in Judaism on social action. The leading belief in the Reform movement is the notion of Tikkun Olam, that all people must work to help rebuild and better this world. The ideal partnership, between social action in the Reform circle and a lack of social justice in America, led to a long commitment from Jews to the civil rights movement.

Many of the most prominent Jews in the late 40s and early 50s were relatively left-leaning and were accused of having strong ties to the Communist party. Jews were very involved in labor movements, which were often considered as having Communist tendencies. Scared of being labeled anti-American, most Jews stopped directly, or indirectly, supporting the Communist party and distanced themselves from organizations that could be connected somehow to Communism.[7] This crack down of the Communist party, ironically, seemed to help the civil rights cause, as disillusioned liberals flocked to a new legitimate social cause.

Sol Levison, a man who identified with the Jewish people and social values but did not believe in the religious aspects of Judaism, is a prime example of the natural bond. Bayard Rustin, a longtime friend and confidant of King, and Levison met through their past participation in left wing causes. In the summer of 1956, Rustin introduced King to Levison and the two formed an unbreakable friendship that would last until King's death. Levison would serve as King's right hand man, acting as a soundboard of ideas and a source of advice. One of King's key aides once said that "Levison was one of the few with whom King could let his hair down and also one of the few who felt free to criticize King to his face? the secret to their relationship was simple: Levison wanted nothing for himself, and King knew it."[8] Levison, along with Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker came together to form an organization which helped victims of segregationist vigilantism. To this organization, and to other civil rights organizations, Levison not only contributed a lot of time but also brought in untapped Jewish resources. As an advisor to King, Levison and Rustin suggested the formation of a new group which would gather student activists. The now-famous SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) was the brainchild of a Levison and Rustin memo to King, mapping out the agenda and goals of the newly-formed assembly. Levison brought in the first major contribution for SCLC of $27,000, oddly enough from a Jew.[9]

Levison's individual commitment may be extraordinary, but independent Jewish support for the movement was certainly widespread. Jack Greenberg, the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense, and his colleagues won the Brown V. Board of Education decision, which rendered "separate but equal" unconstitutional. Jewish activism did not only stem from insiders in the organizations, but also came from regular citizens -- from the wealthy, middle-class, and poor. Peter Rose, in his article "Blacks and Jews: The Strained Alliance" asserts that, "Not only did wealthy philanthropists feel a deep commitment to assuring the rights of all Americans and to giving time, energy, and considerable amounts of money to the cause, but thousands of less affluent Jews contributed as well. The NAACP was one of the most prominent black-oriented civil rights organization to which Jews gave considerable financial support and in which Jews worked closely with Blacks."[10] Jewish students were also very involved in the fight for equality, as they accounted for roughly two-thirds of all white freedom riders in the summer of 1961.[11] Quite an amazing feat for a minority which made up less than 2% of the entire American population.

Support for civil rights did not just come from individuals acting on their own behalf, but also the major national Jewish organizations contributed a tremendous amount of time and effort to the cause. Most of the major national Jewish organizations devoted their labor to civil rights, including: the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the religious unions. All of these organizations offered both rhetoric -- proclaiming their solid pro civil rights positions -- and action -- participating in protests and using their political power.

Leading up to and following the ruling of Brown V. Board of Education, major Jewish organizations across the board lent their support and called on the Federal government to take immediate action. To help the NAACP Jewish groups filed amicus briefs, lent valued legal advice, and provided the uplifting knowledge that another minority supported them. National organizations like the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative Movements National Women's League, the ADL, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee all expressed their full support of the Supreme Court decision. In response to the states in the South who opposed the ruling, the AJCongress "urged the use of full powers and influence of the federal government to obtain prompt and full compliance with the decisions of the United States Supreme Court, condemning state-imposed racial segregation."[12]

Jewish support for civil rights did not begin and end with the Brown V. Board of Education ruling. The Anti-Defamation League went out of its way to ensure that it was doing what it could to help out the civil rights movement. In the early 50s, a representative of the ADL affirmed,

I think it is safe to say that the ADL's general policy is one of opposition to segregation based on race, religion, ancestry, or national origin in any facilities open to the public. The ADL also believes that it is he duty of the Federal government to do whatever it can to insure absolute equality of treatment to all its citizens, regardless of race or creed and, therefore, to refuse to sanction racial segregation in any of its facilities.[13]

Considering the great political backlash that could potentially occur after this sort of bold statement, this declaration is quite courageous. The ADL had plenty of problems to worry about within the Jewish community, like the rampant anti-Semitism and the budding new state in the Middle East. But, the ADL decided that the atrocities of segregation could not go unnoticed, and so it committed what it could to the cause. Out of the five resolutions that the ADL National Executive Committee passed in October 1955, three of them were regarding civil rights. Devoting that much attention to these injustices shows a lot about the ADLs desire to help out the African Americans. The ADL also used its political clout in individual states to solicit support on behalf of the civil rights movement. In 1951 the ADL asked the Governor of Florida to respond to the murder of two Black prisoners by the Sheriff. The ADL was not alone in its support; other groups also came to the aid of the civil rights movement. The AJC helped with desegregation efforts, legal briefs, and fundraising. The leaders of Jewish groups also went to Congress to defend civil rights. These national organizations did not simply sit back and spew rhetoric -- in hopes of possibly appeasing Blacks and not alerting racist Whites -- they went public with their full-fledged support.[14]

This willingness to visibly and emphatically aid the civil rights movement caused great uneasiness for Jews in the South who faced more ardent segregationists and greater anti-Semitism. It seems like Martin Luther King himself said it best, "The National Jewish bodies have been most helpful, but the local Jewish leadership has been silent?. Montgomery Jews want to bury their heads and repeat that it is not a Jewish problem."[15] The vast majority of Southern Jews felt that the self-righteous attitude of the national bodies hurt their status as American citizens in the South. As the civil rights movement grew, it became more and more popular for organizations to send individuals to the South for civil rights demonstrations. These actions caused great strife in the community, as many felt what was expressed in a newspaper, the Southern Israelite, that "Jews who espouse and defend the cause of civil rights jeopardize the security of isolated Jewish communities in the South, threaten their social integration and economic positions and ultimately even their physical safety."[16] The Jews in the South felt that their Northern counter-parts would invade their land, advocate a liberal cause, and leave the repercussions for the Southerners. The national organizations did what was good for Northerners, without thinking about the South.[17] A prominent Rabbi in the South captured the feelings of many of his constituents, "I reject however any claim on the part of the national 'defense? organizations [the AJCongress, AJC, and ADL] to impose martyrdom upon the unwilling Jews of the South and to bask in their reflected glory of their self-sacrifice. It would seem to me that if they think so much o the martyrdom they ought to come down South and try it for themselves."[18]

In many instances, however, Jews not only abhorred the Northern Jewish efforts but even went so far as to emulate the attitudes of the rest of the Southerners, ensuring that they were not seen as too different or set aside as outcasts. Southern Jews, like Southern gentiles, also owned stores which operated under the policy of segregation. In Baltimore, where five of the seven department stores were owned by Jews, national organizations and local Black leaders tried to persuade the owners to abandon their segregationist tactics. But the owners refused, citing the possibility of losing White customers. That feeling resonated throughout for much of the Southern Jews. Most Jews were not in a position to take any political stands, so they feared that any sort of outward support for the civil rights movement would result in a loss of business, friends, and certain privileges.[19]

Articulating the position of many Southern Jews, a Southern Rabbi once said, "The Jew in the South despite his long residence in the area and the high place he has attained in communal life, remains insecure. The vast majority, however doubtful they may be about the morality of segregation, will neither express integrationist sentiments nor identify themselves with an integrationist movement."[20] Regardless of how the citizens of the South felt, it was difficult for them to express themselves. Southerners were scared to express any sort of pro-civil rights stance, for fear of a major backlash. Five years after the Brown V. Board of Education ruling, for which many Jewish national bodies expressed adamant support, the ADL reported that anti-Semitic literature in the South increased by 400 percent.[21]

Synagogue burnings and defamation of Jewish property in the South increased in the 1950s and was even more concentrated in those communities which outwardly supported the civil rights movement. A rabbi in Atlanta, after his Reform temple was bombed in 1958 stated it occurred "because I was so obviously identified with the civil rights movement."[22] A rabbi in Miami received warning to not preach about integration, and his synagogue was later bombed. Persecution like that made it difficult for those pioneers in the South to successfully garner support from the masses. Clive Webb in his book Fight Against Fear asserts, "Jewish standard of living, their social status, and their influence in civic affairs were all entirely reliant upon their relationship with a white Gentile majority sworn to the preservation of racial segregation.(46)"

But even with all these pressures, there were those individuals in the South who still tried to speak out, but were mostly silenced by their communities. Some Reform Rabbis tried to speak out on behalf of civil rights but were suppressed immediately by their community. A Montgomery rabbi who appeared in Life magazine standing next to a Black man was forced by his board to request a retraction from the magazine. Political statements by Rabbis in the South were generally not accepted.[23] Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, the rabbi of a major Temple in Atlanta, spoke candidly from his pulpit about segregation and called his fellow Jews to action, once expressing shame that "the growing race hatred that threats the South" and challenged his congregation to "be among those who are willing to do something" to reverse the tide.[24]

Jews were not fully part of American society yet. They were still being hunted for Communist ties and were still restricted from many jobs and not allowed to live in certain developments. Entrances to country clubs and other places often read, "No Blacks, Dogs, or Jews." They were easing into their roles as "full-time citizens." They were sort of stuck in between a rock and a hard place -- oftentimes wanting to express themselves but knowing in the back of their mind that any actions that questioned the injustices were suspect and possibly punished. Because Jews were not yet accepted, the different societies of the North and South tolerated different actions. In the South they were forced to maintain the status-quo. In the North they were allowed more freedom in their efforts. Fascinatingly, they sort of blended in to the extremes -- from harboring segregationist tactics to serving as invaluable aids to Martin Luther King Jr. Their involvement in the civil rights movement proves what Elie Weisel once said, "that Jews are just like everyone else, just more so." But the fact that Northern Jews, who were not necessarily given the green light to attack the status quo, were so steadfastly involved reveals a lot about Jewish activism in the 1950s. Even with the shortcomings in the South, it should be no wonder why Martin Luther King once declared that "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."[25]


  1. King quoted Rabbi Prinz's philosophy on civil action at King's acceptance speech at the AJC annual meeting May 20, 1965 [URL]

  2. Cashman, Sean Dennis. African Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights 1900-1990. New York University Press 1991 New York: New York . pp. 124-131

  3. Newman, Samuel. "Martin Luther King, Jr." The Jewish Spectator 33:6 (1962), pp. 16-17

  4. King, Martin Luther. "In Peace and in Dignity." Congress Bi-Weekly 35:8 (May 6, 1968), 16-17.

  5. King's acceptance speech at the AJC annual meeting May 20, 1965 [URL]

  6. Schneier, Rabbi Marc. Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community. pp. 19-20.

  7. Franklin, V.P., African Americans and Jews in the Twentieth Century. pp 102-104

  8. Ibid. pp. 115-116

  9. Ibid. pp. 119

  10. Rose, Peter. "Blacks and Jews: The Strained Alliance"

  11. Dollinger, Marc. Quest For Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America. p. 173

  12. Ibid. pp 173-182

  13. Greenberg, Cherly. "The Southern Jewish Community and the Struggle for Civil Rights."

  14. Ibid.

  15. Greene, Melissa Fay. The Temple Bombing. Pg. 180.

  16. Dollinger, Marc. The Quest For Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America. p. 167

  17. Webb, Clive. Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. p. 71

  18. Schneier, Rabbi Marc. Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community p.41.

  19. Greenberg, Cheryl. "The Southern Jewish Community and the Struggle for Civil Rights."

  20. Dollinger, Marc. "Hamans and Torquemadas: Southern and Northern Jewish Responses to the Civil Rights Movement 1945-1965"

  21. Webb, Clive. Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. p. 45-56

  22. Dollinger, Marc. The Quest For Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America. p. 167

  23. Schneier, Rabbi Marc. Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community. p. 40

  24. Schneier, Rabbi Marc. Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community. p. 62

  25. Rose, Peter. "Blacks and Jews: The Strained Alliance." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol 454, March 1981. p. 55

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