Earlier this month, on May 17, the United States marked the 60th anniversary of the historic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, in Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., that declared “separate educational facilities [to be] inherently unequal,” and therefore unconstitutional.
That decision kick-started a half-century-old but as yet moribund national movement that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act, whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated on July 2, did not end racial segregation and other forms of discrimination against minorities in this country entirely, but it was a major step forward.
Jews and blacks both tend to forget that we once marched side by side in that struggle for equality – not just because it was the correct course to take, a good enough reason by itself, but because we were among those most discriminated against.
From 1776 to this very day, the battle has raged to make this a Christian nation, and if at all possible, to make it a white Christian nation.
In the republic’s earliest days, states adopted all kinds of laws to exclude non-Christians, not just non-whites. For example, in 1808, a Jew, Jacob Henry, won a seat in the North Carolina House of Commons. When he tried to take that seat at the beginning of 1809, he was told he could not because North Carolina law required all officeholders to believe in the Christian Bible.
“Are you prepared to plunge at once from sublime heights of moral legislation into the dark and gloomy caverns of superstitious ignorance?” Mr. Henry asked the House of Commons the day it refused to seat him. “Will you drive from your shores and from the shelter of your constitution all who do not lay their oblations on the same altar, observe the same ritual, and subscribe to the same dogmas…?
“The religion I profess inculcates every duty which man owes to his fellow men; it enjoins upon its votaries the practice of every virtue and the detestation of every vice; it teaches them to hope for the favor of heaven exactly in proportion as their lives have been directed by just, honorable, and beneficent maxims. This, then, gentlemen, is my creedâ€¦.”
Jacob Henry was seated, but the law went unchanged for another 60 years.
Then there are the so-called Blue Laws, for which Bergen County has the distinction of being the last great holdout in the nation. The late Chief Justice Earl Warren defended this obnoxious category of legislation in a 1961 decision, arguing that such laws had as their stated goal “the better observation and keeping holy the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday.”
America was a land of opportunity for Jews, that is undeniable, but it also was a frightening place for us. Signs all over our nation attested to that. One kind of sign was Leo Frank hanging from a tree outside an Atlanta jail in August 1915, lynched by an ex-governor of Georgia, a superior court judge, several Georgia mayors, and the son of U.S. senator – who were publicly encouraged to do so by a onetime vice presidential candidate who soon would become a U.S. senator.
Other signs were more common: “No Jews, blacks, or Catholics allowed.” “No Jews, blacks, or women allowed.” “No Jews, blacks, or dogs allowed.” At the University of Southern California, there were signs all over the campus that read, “No Jews, blacks, or Orientals allowed.”
The common thread for all of such signs was “No Jews or blacks.” Everything else was regional.
Brown v. Board of Education helped pushed the civil rights movement into high gear, but the movement had been around since the start of the 20th century, and Jews played a very significant role in it from the very beginning.
The leading civil rights organization in this country, the NAACP, was founded in 1911 in significant part by Jews, who also helped fund it. Among them were Sears president Julius Rosenwald; the social and political activist and communal leader Henry Moskowitz (he would go on to help found the League of New York Theaters); Henry Street Settlement founder Lillian Wald; and Rabbis Emil Hirsch and Stephen Wise. One hundred years ago, in 1914, the NAACP elected a Jew, Columbia University Professor Emeritus Joel Spingarn, to be its chairman. He brought other Jews onto the NAACP board, including the banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff.
During the 1960s, nearly half the country’s civil rights lawyers were Jewish; more than half the white civil rights workers were Jewish. And, of course, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two of the three young men killed in Mississippi 50 years ago on June 21, 1964, in the midst of the Freedom Summer, were Jewish. The third, James Chaney, was black.
The civil rights movement worked for us a lot more quickly than it did for blacks, not because the white world liked Jews better than they liked black people (white supremacists still do not include us in their definition of white), but because most of us could pass for white.
So many anniversaries: Spingarn’s leadership of the NAACP (100 years); Brown v. Board of Education (60 years); Freedom Summer and the murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney (50 years); the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (50 years). So many anniversaries, yet they go by almost unnoticed in our community.
How sad is that?