Relations Between Jews and Blacks During the Civil Rights Movement (by Abbie Wang)

After the lesson, students should have a better understanding of the complexity of the Jewish-black relationship. The students should become aware of the tension driven by the two minorities’ different societal standings and the difference of attitudes between the northern and southern Jews towards blacks and their fight for equal rights.

Students will understand how the relationship between the Jews and the blacks was relevant in helping the blacks reach their goals during the Civil Rights Movement. This lesson will ask the students to analyze a primary source: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s sermon “Race and Religion” and draw conclusions about the relationship between blacks and Jews, both individually and in groups. Specifically, students should be able to realize that Jewish rabbis in particular were the main cause for Jewish support in the Civil Rights Movement with their congregations’ backing. From previous knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement (presumably given in other lectures or activities), students will see the parallel relationships between the rabbi and their congregation and black ministers and their congregations: both greatly influenced the popular opinion on the movement.

Students are employing their comprehension and analytical skills in understanding the social developments between Jews and blacks. They will be given background history of interactions between Jews and blacks so that they can interpret social and economic developments of their relationship.

Jewish rabbis and black ministers played parallel roles in their respective communities to foster support for the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating the importance of religion in the overall movement.

1.   How were the Jewish and black relations defined in the Civil Rights Movement?
2.   Why do you think the Jewish community supported the Civil Rights Movement?
3.   How did the rabbis in the Jewish community play a role in shaping Jewish involvement in the movement?
4.   How were rabbis and black ministers similar in their involvement in their separate communities in the movement?
5.   What basis did the Jewish community use to explain why they supported the blacks’ cause or didn’t support the blacks’ cause?

INTRODUCTION (this information will be used in the lecture, not necessarily read by students):
In the early 1960s, the Jewish-black relations were founded mostly on their shared identity of being oppressed minorities living in the United States. Nonetheless, tension existed between the communities because of the socioeconomic differences since the Jewish minority was often viewed as being the successful model minority. Blacks were primarily working class while their Jewish counterparts were middle class. Relations also differed between state borders: northern Jews were often more active in the Civil Rights Movement than their southern counterparts because southern Jews were more hesitant to rise up against the racist white majority society they lived with. Jewish activists came overwhelmingly from northern states and though most southern Jews were aware of the racial injustice, they refrained from active involvement for safety purposes. Differences within the southern Jews’ attitudes towards blacks relate to their desire to assimilate smoothly into white society.

Blacks expected Jews to have a more active role in the movement because of their sensitivity toward discrimination and the sense of kinship the two minorities had developed from the effects of World War II and were angry when these expectations were not met. Yet in general, Martin Luther King admitted that “it would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom…it has been so great.” Black leaders such as King reiterated a positive image of Jews because they held an idealized concept of Jewish communal pride; they believed that Jews had innate qualities that accounted for their success in the United States that blacks needed to learn in order to succeed. Black leaders were also naturally in more frequent contact with the Jewish leaders and community, thus appreciating the more prominent role Jews played in civil rights organizations and demonstrations. Rabbis, like black leaders, influenced the Jewish communities’ actions and attitudes toward racial equality. Despite lack of activity, there was an overwhelming majority of southern rabbis who supported racial equality but could not take action because their congregations feared that action would put all southern Jews at risk. Similar to black ministers and leaders of the Christian churches, rabbis were at the forefront in representing their congregations’ opinions on civil rights. Most northern rabbis were willing to take a public stand against racism for which their southern counterparts criticized them for not keeping the local Jewish community in mind and endangering their safety.

A consensus taken by Newsweek magazine in 1965 showed that blacks outside the South had more favorable views of Jews than those living in the South. Obvious from black spirituals and Gospel music, black Protestants “held a sense of affinity with the children of Israel” and Jews became aware of the problems blacks faced through Yiddish press. These connections were translated into social action that Jews took on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement: both wealthy and non-wealthy Jews donated money to contribute to causes assuring equal rights for all Americans. Jews worked closely with black leaders in the two prominent organizations NAACP and National Urban League. In fact, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Staff was Jewish lawyer Jack Greenberg. Two large Jewish organizations, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee also made efforts to reduce intergroup tension and educate Americans on multiethnic communities. There were also a multitude of northern Jews who participated in the Freedom Riders, voter registration teams and continued to be active in demonstrations for racial equality.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Conservative Jewish rabbi living in New York City during the Civil Rights Movement. He was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. King and Heschel first met on January 14, 1963 at a conference on Religion and Race sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Heschel gave the speech, “Race and Religion,” on his opinions towards equal rights and racial problems in the United States.

Primary Source: “Race or Religion” a sermon by Abraham Joshua Heschel found here

Webb, Clive. “Chapter 2 – Black Perceptions of Jews. Chapter 8 – The Rabbis.” Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. 23-43.

YouTube video: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. © 2012, Ways and Means Production: found here

1.   The teacher will give a brief lecture on the role ministers played in the Civil Rights Movement. S/He will offer the students a look into the development of the Jewish-black relations, stressing the fact that both were oppressed minorities in the larger white population and can choose whether or not to bring up the issue of class in discussion.

2.   Students will then see a brief YouTube clip that offers a preliminary look at the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

3.   Begin the conversation by asking for initial reactions: what were the students struck by the most?

4.   Lead the conversation into asking students how they think religion played a large role for both blacks and Jews in the Civil Rights Movement.

5.   Students will first split into small groups or pairs and will be assigned to read either the first sheet of quotes or the second sheet of quotes.

While reading the primary source students should keep the following questions in mind:
i.     How did Heschel’s background shape the content of his writing?
ii.    How did Heschel’s sermon reflect the Jewish-black relationship during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement?
iii.    What are the parallels between black ministers and Jewish rabbis in their roles in the Civil Rights Movement?
iv.    How did religion play a role in the Civil Rights Movement?

6.   After discussing these questions in their small groups, they will then find another pair or group who had the opposite sheet and they will exchange ideas, thoughts and analysis that they drew from it. The two groups will discuss the answers that they came up to the above questions.

7.   Students will be expected to draw both similarities and differences from quotes of the same speech and will be asked to give their opinions on why this is (based off previous knowledge and information shared with them.)

8.   After meeting in the small groups, students will be asked to share with the class what their partnering group’s quotes were about and how that was relevant to what they analyzed.

9.   As a closing question, ask students how they think religion might have helped or hinder the movement.

Dollinger, Marc. “Humans and Torquemadas: Southern and Northern Jewish Responses
to the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1965.” The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1997. 67-94.

Heller, Celia Stopnicka and Alphonso Pinkney. “The Attitudes of Negroes towards
Jews.” Social Forces, V. 43 (1965): 364-396.

Rose, Peter I. “Blacks and Jews: The Strained Alliance.” Annals of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science,
V. 454 (1981): 58-65.

Webb, Clive. “Chapter 2 – Black Perceptions of Jews. Chapter 8 – The Rabbis.” Fight
Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights.
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. 169-216.

Key Ideas and Details:
1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
a. From the outside secondary source reading, students will gain a general understanding of why relations between northern Jews and southern blacks were positive

2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
a. In their small groups as well as in the larger classroom setting, students share the key ideas of Heschel’s sermon

3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
a. From the short lecture and outside reading, students will evaluate the possible reasons why Heschel addressed the specific issues he did in his sermon

Craft and Structure:
4. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
a. Students will see how Heschel addresses the problem of racism to be multi-faceted: problems of the larger white population and a religious problem as well

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
5. Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
a. After reading the secondary source, students will evaluate how Heschel’s background as a northern rabbi affected the content of his sermon

Historical Interpretation:
6. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments
a. From knowledge of the demonstrations in the Civil Rights Movement, secondary reading and short lecture, students will demonstrate an understanding of reasons for the complicated nature of Jewish-black relations

7. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
a. From the short lecture, students will gain insight on the development of Jewish-black relations and be able to explain some reasons why Heschel stressed certain ideas in his sermon

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