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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 136-140

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American Jews and the Civil Rights Movement

Leonard Dinnerstein

Debra L. Schultz. Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001. xvix + 228 pp. Pictures, notes, bibliography, and index. $26.95.

Clive Webb. Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001. xvii + 307 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $50.00.

The civil rights movement rocked the nation for more than a decade. The core years, 1954-1964, witnessed the greatest cooperation between blacks and whites. The 10-year period began with the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, et. al., which called for desegregation of the nation's public schools, and ended with the Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The act's legitimacy was later confirmed by the Supreme Court in Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States {379 U. S. 241 [1964]}). During that period blacks and most whites worked together in the North for an end to segregation; in the South, most of the white people shunned involvement and many actively opposed any change in the existing culture. No white ethnic group in the United States contributed as much to support the movement, both in terms of money given to the cause and individuals expending human energy, as did northern Jews. The conventional wisdom is that southern Jews, fearful for their own safety and for the safety of the Jewish community, did little or nothing. Northern Jews, on the other hand, joined the front ranks of the battles.

In the two books under review here, Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement and Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, the authors, Debra L. Schultz and Clive Webb, respectively, focus on aspects of the movement that they believe have either been overlooked or reported inaccurately. What is most striking in reading and discussing these books together, is that the former focuses upon individual women and their personal responses and explanations for involvement, while the latter dwells more on the societal concerns that dictated southern Jewish behavior. These [End Page 136] stark contrasts reveal how different the experiences and opportunities were for Jews in the North and Jews in the South.

Northern Jews made personal decisions about how involved they wished to get in the civil rights movement; broader societal values played only a small role in how they determined their courses of action. Whatever they did for the cause, however, generally won approval from other northern Jews and gentiles alike. To promote civil rights for blacks in the South by northerners was considered expanding the reach of democracy. To behave similarly in the South, one would have to have been almost totally oblivious to public opinion and walk cautiously, if at all. Throughout much of the 1950s and early 1960s, northern Jewish organizations proudly announced their support for and involvement with the movement; during that same period most southern Jews and Jewish organizations denounced their northern counterparts, asked them to suppress their outstanding presence in the forefront of the civil rights cause, and to keep in mind the consequences of northern Jewish activity to the welfare of southern Jews. Northern Jews ignored these pleas; southern Jews lived in fear of reprisals from their neighbors.

Going South primarily explores the attitudes and behavior of northern Jewish women born in the late 1930s through the late 1940s; Schultz only minimally considers the impact of their activities on Jews in the South. Schultz writes about the importance of social justice to these northern women and explores which factors in their backgrounds propelled them (often these included "Jewish values" broadly defined) to go South to work with and for African Americans. In a telling introductory remark, Schultz writes that her book "focuses on a group of boundary-crossing, northern Jewish women who had the opportunity, means, and will to put their bodies on the line to challenge the entrenched system of southern racism in the 1960s...


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