Southern Cultures 8.4 (2002) 98-100
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Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. By Clive Webb. University of Georgia Press, 2001 307 pp. Cloth $50.00
Recently, the Fox Family network has been airing episodes of their new show, "State of Grace," which is about a young Jewish girl named Hannah Rayburn. Hannah's family moves from Illinois to North Carolina, and she copes with being [End Page 98] a "fish out of water," as the show's description says, with the help of her friend Grace. But Hannah is by no means alone. With the recent rush of southern Jewish memoir, as well as the release of documentary films like Delta Jews and Pushcarts and Plantations, it's becoming clearer and clearer that there are—and long have been—plenty of Jewish fish in the southern waters.
The roster of Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement includes some of its most famous moments. Samuel Leibowitz and Joseph Brodsky, the two primary lawyers for the "Scottsboro boys," were Jewish. In 1961 civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, by white supremacists. Chaney was an African American from Mississippi, while Goodman and Schwerner were both northern Jews. As Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo said as the movement gained momentum, "The niggers and the Jews are working hand in hand." With Fight Against Fear, Clive Webb moves beyond these noted instances of northern Jewish involvement to take a deeper look at the experiences and actions of those who dealt with the situation as southerners and as Jews.
Some southern Jews avoided confrontation as long as possible, like the drugstore owner who simply removed lunch counter stools to get around the question of who was permitted to sit. Eventually, though, like all southerners, Jews in the South had to choose a side. While some supported the segregated status quo—one man joined the Selma sheriff's posse in arresting voting rights demonstrators—other southern Jews protested it, with rabbis giving sermons asking for tolerance and integration.
Integrationists demonstrated their views with decisive gestures. The National Council of Jewish Women passed a resolution supporting integration at their New Orleans meeting in 1955. In Atlanta, Marvin Goldstein owned a hotel called the Best Western American that opened in 1963. Goldstein had refused to install a water fountain at all rather than install the two that segregationist custom dictated, a gesture which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. supported by arranging meetings at the hotel.
Many rabbis also took the integrationist side, and Reform rabbis in particular opposed segregation from their pulpits. In 1958 Emmet Frank of Alexandria, Virginia, lambasted segregationist Virginia senator Harry Byrd during Yom Kippur services. Frank told his congregation to "Let the segregationists froth and foam at the mouth. . . .There is only one word to describe their madness—Godlessness, or to coin a new synonym—Byrdliness." By using the holiest day on the Jewish calendar to air such views, Frank demonstrated that he considered Jewish involvement in the integrationist cause to be crucial. Not all of his congregants were pleased with their rabbi's ideas, but many southern rabbis followed suit. After he came forth as a supporter of civil rights, Rabbi Julian Feibelman of New Orleans had to change his telephone number because of the threats he and his [End Page 99] family received. He still got hate mail, though, with one letter telling him: "Help the Negro all you wish, your digging your races grave [sic]."
On the other side, some southern Jews belonged to the racist Citizens' Councils, which were spread throughout the South. Many joined under duress, but some were ardent segregationists. South Carolinian Solomon Blatt launched a series of assaults at groups like the Anti-Defamation League, eager to prove that southern Jews opposed integration. Al Binder, of Jackson, led the prosecution of the Freedom Riders in May of 1961. One of his town leaders said, "Al's one of us. . . .He's our Jew," while Georgian Charles Bloch told fellow segregationists, "You shall not...