Jewish Activists in the Civil Rights Movement (by Morissa Zuckerman)


Through this lesson, students will learn about Jewish activists, particularly women, and the African-American community during the civil rights movement.  Students will gain understanding about the social, political, religious, racial and gender dynamics that played into this relationship and its implications.


The following exercises will enable students to explore the relationship between Jewish activists and the black community, as well as gain awareness about the various intricacies and issues that were involved with this alliance.  Using a speech from Rabbi Joachim Prinz given at the March on Washington as a primary source, students will analyze the historical and religious context that led many Jewish activists to join the civil rights movement.  By examining the implications of the recent Holocaust and Judaism’s emphasis on morality and tzedakah, students will hypothesize why such a large proportion of white activists were Jews and what motivated them to become involved.  Students will gain a particular understanding of the racial and gender dynamics in play that affected Jewish activists, especially women, as they went south to join the movement.


Jewish activists, including many women, played an important but controversial role in the civil rights movement as they upheld the values of the Jewish religion and acted in response to the recent horrors of the Holocaust.


  1. How were Jewish activists involved in the civil rights movement?
  2. Why was the number of Jews involved so large compared to their small population size? How did the Holocaust and Judaism’s emphasis on social justice and tzedakah influence their involvement?
  3. How important was their Jewish identity to the activists’ civil rights work and how did it shape their experience? Did they understand this as a catalyst for their radicalism?
  4. How specifically did the role of Jewish women influence race relations and the civil rights movement, and what kind of opposition did they face? From whom?
  5. What tensions arose between the northern Jewish activists and African Americans in the civil rights movement?


Tzedakah: Righteousness, justice, charitable giving as a moral responsibility.


The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s immediately followed the end of World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust.  This context is critical in understanding the motivations behind Jewish activism during this time, and is one of the main reasons why such a high proportion of white activists who went south were Jewish.  The history of oppression of the Jewish people is another impetus that drove many to feel the moral obligation to fight for racial equality, as well as the Judaism’s emphasis on social justice, morality, and tzedakkah.  As Rabbi Joachim Prinz explained at the 1963 March on Washington in comments that immediately preceded Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the shared history of slavery and oppression allowed many in the Jewish community to identify with the plight of African Americans and feel solidarity towards their experiences.

However, many of the young Jews who went south, both women and men, did not identify their religion as their primary motive for joining the movement.  Thus, with one researcher finding that half of the white Freedom Riders were Jewish, and another stating that approximately two-thirds of the white volunteers for the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project were Jewish, it seems that something about the cultural or political history of the Jewish people must have influenced their decisions (Schultz p. 18).

Jewish activists, especially women, faced opposition to their actions from many different sources, including some of the Jewish community, white Christian Americans, and the black community.  Many Jews during this time felt slightly outside of mainstream white culture, or in between the privileges of whiteness and still-present anti-Semitism.  Many, particularly some worried parents, felt that involvement in the civil rights movement was sacrificing their children’s futures or safety (Schultz p. 14).  Southern Jews were generally considered to be different from the radical northern Jews, and mostly stayed out of the civil rights movement.  Some were blatantly racist, or apathetic, or felt that their own priorities had to be put first and were anxious to be accepted into white society (Kinslow, p. 10).

The role of Jewish women was different than that of men, since they experienced different gender and race relation dynamics.  The social climate and pressures of the time particularly prohibited contact or any kind of interracial sexual relationships, as black men were seen as a threat to the purity of white women.  In going south and joining the movement, these women defied the expectations to stay away and maintain their “purity.”  Some did engage in relationships with African American men, and in doing so prompted particularly virulent controversy that was both racially and sexually charged.

The African American community expressed a white variety of responses to Jewish involvement.  Many appreciated the support and welcomed Jewish activists into the movement.  Others looked at Jews and saw simply white.  Because the activists were “relatively privileged, well-educated northern students” (Schultz, p. 3), some in the black community saw them as representatives of white society and resented them.

One famous event that highlights Jewish involvement was the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish, and their deaths gained a lot of media attention.  The lesser focus on the murder of Chaney, and on the discovery of the bodies of more than a dozen other murdered African Americans during the search for the civil rights workers, was a source of resentment and tension in the Black community.

Black nationalist separatists began to call for a movement run only by blacks and expelled white people from the effort.  Many felt resentful that white activists came to the south and assumed leadership positions, attracted media coverage, and took responsibility for a movement that wasn’t about their own people or their own rights.  Thus, Jewish and African American relations began to take a turn for the worse after what some call the golden years of the early 1960s.



As a homework assignment to precede the class, have the students read the preface and introduction to Debra Schultz’s Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement.

Begin the class by asking the students what they knew about the relationship between the Jewish community and African Americans during the civil rights movement and what they learned from Debra Schultz’s book.  Many will probably have known very little or nothing about it before doing the reading.  Ask them to discuss their impressions of the reading and to think of any questions they have.  Many of these questions will hopefully be answered by the following lecture and activities, but ask them to be aware if they have any questions that go unaddressed.

Deliver the information provided in the introduction section as a spoken lecture or power point and ask the students to take notes.

Next have the students listen to Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s speech at the March on Washington.  Then pass out transcripts of his speech and have them highlight Rabbi Prinz’s three main beliefs or points.

After the lecture and speech, have the students divide into groups and make a chart, list, or venn diagram outlining the similarities, differences, and overlaps between the historical experience of Jewish people and African Americans.  Then have them highlight any that they think might have been particularly important or influential during the time that these two groups were working together during the civil rights movement.  Have the groups share what they wrote and note any differences between their answers.

After sharing, pass out copies of the article by Judith Rosenbaum, and ask for volunteers to read aloud.  Then have the students get into different groups and discuss the article.  Ask them to take particular care to notice the significance of religion (Goodman and Schwerner were both Jewish), the possible implications for race relations (given that this event was so well publicized because two of the victims were white), and the involvement and participation of the women described in the article.

After this discussion, share with the students the result of the murders and the trial: 17 men went on trial in 1967.  The all-white jury convicted seven of the men and gave them sentences ranging from four to ten years in jail.  In defense of this decision, the presiding Judge William Harold Cox made his famous comment: “They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man—I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”

To close, ask the students if they see any lasting implications of this alliance between the Jewish community and African Americans.  What surprised them?  Did it make them think about this time period differently?

Lastly, ask them to share their overall impressions of the lecture and open up the class for questions or further discussion.


  • Greenberg, Cheryl L. Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century. Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Kinslow, Krista. “The Road to Freedom Is Long and Winding.” Indiana Magazine Of History 108, no. 1 (March 2012): 1-34. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.
  • Mohl, Raymound A. “A Merger of Movements: Peace and Civil Rights Activism in Postwar Miami.” Peace & Change 35, no. 2 (April 2010: 258-294. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.
  • Schultz, Debra L. Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement. New York University Press, 2002.


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.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Students compare the present with the past, evaluating the consequences of past events and decisions and determining the lessons that were learned.

Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.

Students recognize the complexity of historical causes and effects, including the limitations on determining cause and effect.

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.

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