| 24 May 2001
Book Reviews: In the Fight for Civil Rights, the Past Is Not Past
Three Books Explore the Ambivalence at the Heart of Jewish Involvement in the South
MAY 25, 2001
By Leonard Zeskind
Anne Levy, The Holocaust, and David Duke’s Louisiana
By Lawrence Powell
University of North Carolina, 560 pp. $34.95
Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement
By Debra L. Schultz
New York University, 222 pages $26.95.
Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights
By Clive Webb
University of Georgia, 294 pages, $50.
On May 1, 38 years after blowing up Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, an aging Alabama Ku Klux Klansman was finally sentenced to life imprisonment for killing four young black girls as they donned choir robes in the basement. The conviction is among the latest in a series of recent re-hearings of civil-rights-era crimes, many of which have gone unsolved and unpunished. Since 1989, 18 cases have been reinvestigated and seven men have been convicted for past murders, one of the most notorious being the shooting of Medgar Evers, Mississippi state leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But many cases remain unresolved, including that of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Although federal conspiracy convictions were reached against seven men in the infamous 1964 case, murder charges were never brought in Mississippi state courts. This is the past that cannot be forgotten, to paraphrase William Faulkner. And as the vote by Mississippians to keep the Confederate stars and bars in their state flag most recently demonstrates, this past is still not past. It must be told and retold, as it is in these three books.
In these stories of bondage and redemption, the role of Jews is equivocal and contradictory. Jewish students from Northern universities bravely ride South on freedom buses, register voters and go to jail. Holocaust survivors battle American racism and anti-Semitism. Jewish defense agencies support the struggle for legal desegregation but often must overcome the fears of their own Southern constituents to do so. A few rabbis challenge the complacency and racism in their congregations, but others do not. A handful of Southern Jewish men outspokenly join the segregationist cause. But many more Southern Jewish women steadfastly work for integration. All are torn between their privileged status as whites and their despised role as a supposed race of Christ-killers and mongrelizing Communist conspirators. Yet in each of these three books, Jews — Northern and Southern, men or women, observant or secular, radical left or reactionary right — are, well, Jews.
In Debra Schultz’s “Going South,” the reader must occasionally climb over the academic lingo she deploys. But on the other side of scholarly discourse is an emotionally compelling story, long ignored. Most histories of the civil rights movement, Ms. Schultz argues, focus on male movers and shakers. In those few instances where women are specifically considered, she says, Jewish women are as invisible as Jews. To fill in the picture, Ms. Schultz interviewed a representative sample of Jewish women, most of them once young radicals typical of those who risked all for a beloved ideal. There are brave moments told here.
The photos are worth the price of admission by themselves: In one, Dottie Zellner (nee Miller), looking no older than a B’nai B’rith Youth Organization member, holds her head after being beaten in Virginia while giving an affidavit to James Forman, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In another, Rita Schwerner addresses a Democratic Party state caucus less than a month after her husband’s body had been found buried in an earthen Mississippi dam. Ms. Schultz’s text shines when she digs under the newsreel footage to tell how these women felt about the community of activists they had joined or the families they had left behind. The reader feels the conflict inherent in choosing between the “white” or “colored” line of applicants for a Georgia driver’s license one day, and following blacks into the civil rights trenches the next. And this treatment, unlike others, explores what it was like to be a Jew in a movement bound together by an intense Christian faith. It is a sensibility as familiar to this reader as fried chicken and greens at Paschal’s soul-food restaurant in Atlanta.
The greatest virtue of “Going South” is its insight into Jewish women from the North. What Ms. Schultz, a historian and program director at the Open Society Institute in New York, does not treat is the South itself. Enter Clive Webb’s “Fight Against Fear.” A lecturer at the University of Sussex in England, he has marshaled a broad range of data in his efforts to explain the complexity of the response by Southern Jews to the demands of the civil rights movement. An opening chapter on pre-Civil War slave ownership by Jews establishes his first premise: In the antebellum South, Jews enjoyed the privileges of whiteness and adopted the mores of their white gentile neighbors. Another chapter describing violence directed at synagogues in Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere helps establish his second premise: Jews were accepted into the community of whites only if they did not violate its segregationist strictures.
Mr. Webb parses the participation of a few outspoken Jewish men in the White Citizens Councils while recounting the unique role that middle-class, Southern Jewish women played in the battle for integration. These women were solid liberals in organizations such as the Panel of American Women, a strong complement to Ms. Schultz’s story of Northern radicals in SNCC. Perhaps the strongest chapters, however, are those dealing with the response by Jewish institutions such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When ADL came to the defense of the NAACP in Alabama, for example, ADL’s Alabama members resigned in protest. When rabbis joined the movement in St. Augustine, local Jewish leaders asked them to leave town.
Jewish intransigence in the South, according to Mr. Webb, stemmed from two (related) motivations: first, Jews were white middle-class people and responded to the civil rights movement with the same range of attitudes as other Southern whites; and second, fear. Even when Jews privately supported integration, they often didn’t express it for fear of arousing their neighbors’ anti-Semitic prejudices. Almost as soon as the Supreme Court ruled that separate was not equal, the South was inundated with scurrilous anti-Semitic propaganda. “Communist Jews” were blamed for fomenting blacks into rebellion. Conspiracy theories as old as the death of Jesus and as recent as the Holocaust were recirculated. This too is the past that is not past.
Long after the last freedom rider had gone back North and the needs of blacks were once again placed on the nation’s back burner, David Duke drew large crowds to cow-pasture cross-burnings by claiming that Jews masterminded the civil rights movement. More, he claimed, they had invented a Holocaust that didn’t happen, just so they could make whites feel guilty and win support for Israel. Mr. Duke seemed little more than an articulate crank as long as he spoke only to the brownshirt and white-sheet crowd. But when he was elected to the Louisiana state legislature in 1989, it looked to Anne Levy as if Hitler might have re-arrived. Born Anne Skorecki in Poland, she had survived the Warsaw Ghetto as a child, moved to New Orleans, raised a family and, like other survivors, tried to leave behind the traumas of her past. But when this small woman unexpectedly encountered Mr. Duke in the Baton Rouge statehouse, she backed the more physically imposing politician into a political corner. What did he mean it didn’t happen, she asked him face to face. She had been there and could tell him that it had. After unsuccessfully trying to ignore Ms. Levy, Mr. Duke beat a hasty retreat into the Capitol’s basement.
Lawrence Powell, a historian at Tulane University, sees the whole world in the life of Ms. Levy. Mr. Powell tells a powerful personal story that is free from the jargon and preoccupations of the academy. He gets personally involved, visiting Ms. Levy’s Polish hometown, tracing the fate of area Jews and describing with great care and insight the emotional journey of survivors after they reached the United States. Speaking out about the Holocaust came late to Ms. Levy: after Eichmann’s capture and after meeting others in large, organized gatherings. Unlike other survivor biographies, “Troubled Memory” merges Ms. Levy’s story directly into an account of a contemporary battle against racism and anti-Semitism.
Ms. Levy’s statehouse confrontation with Mr. Duke becomes one moment in the larger battle to unseat Duke the politician, and racism and anti-Semitism in Louisiana. Here Mr. Powell was more participant than observer, being among the first to organize opposition to Mr. Duke’s campaigns. Remember, Mr. Duke ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and Louisiana governor in 1991. Although he lost both elections, he won a majority of white votes each time. Despite the opinions of the majority of their neighbors, in this battle Jews were neither equivocal nor self-contradictory. These Southern Jews did not accede to the mores of “whiteness.” Instead, they joined the political action campaign that finally brought an end to Mr. Duke’s career as a “legitimate” politician.
Perhaps the past is really past. If Klan killers can finally be brought to justice in Alabama and Mississippi, maybe it is time for history to be history. All three of these titles make a contribution that we cannot ignore.
|< Prev||Next >|