Jews and civil rights

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, the landmark civil rights rally that featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. Since the 1930s, JTA has been reporting on the deep involvement of American Jews in the civil rights struggle. Our archives contain more than 2,200 articles on the topic. Among the earliest is a piece from 1930 describing how Rabbi Abram V. Goodman publicly condemned the residents of White Plains, N.Y. , for opposing two black doctors who had taken up residence in the New York City suburb. In 1933, Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein resigned after a member of his Alabama congregation opposed his support for the Scottsboro boys, a group of black teenagers accused of rape.

In 1956, during the mass arrests of black protesters against Montgomery’s segregated bus system, Hebrew Union College protested time and again for the arrestees. The efforts hit their apex in 1963 when numerous Jewish leaders and communities not only participated but helped organize the March on Washington.

Yet the relationship was not always reciprocal. Studies have shown that certain black communities harbored anti-Semitic prejudices. To counter this, black leaders, including King, went out of their way to laud the Jewish role in fighting for civil rights.

Today, the connection between fighting anti-Semitism and support for broad civil rights is generally seen as obvious, but that wasn’t always the case. In the 1940s, the Jewish community was divided over whether civil rights was a Jewish question or not. What eventually pushed some Jews to embrace the civil rights movement was not a quest for the moral high ground but the realization that it was in the best interests of Jewish communities. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise argued repeatedly that solving the discrimination problems of blacks would help solve those problems for Jews — a view that ultimately carried the day.

When the march convened in 1963, it had the broad support of American Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, and the synagogue umbrella groups and rabbinical associations of all three major Jewish denominations. Also participating was a delegation of Holocaust survivors, who carried banners in English and Yiddish.