- Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community
This book is much more than a discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jews. It is an attempt to show how Jews and African Americans worked together in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Where they differed in perspectives, which Jews were most active, how southern and northern Jews differed from one another, and how, after King’s death, African Americans became more radical in pursuit of their goals are the major focal points. Schneier is remarkably straightforward and honest in his assessments as he retells well-known events. Unfortunately, he is less subtle and nuanced in his description of the relationships between King and many northern Jews, where an extraordinarily complex relationship existed. King depended on the financial support of Jews and Jewish organizations, and this meant that both his public utterances and private conversations had to be tailored to the needs of backers (Jews) and followers (African Americans and many other Americans).
Most Jews favored civil rights, but Reform and unaffiliated Jews predominated as activists in the public sphere. Northern Jewish community relations organizations had agendas that differed significantly from their counterparts in the South. Southern Jews, especially in small communities, were frightened that they, too, would be victimized if they came out publicly with positions on civil rights that differed from those of their white Christian neighbors. Northern Jews had no such concerns; they did not fear adverse publicity for standing with others in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Thus sharp conflicts arose between southern Jews who feared for their lives in small towns and northern Jewish organizations that had a different agenda. Schneier is quite clear in explaining this.
Despite the author’s intent to show how much cooperation existed between African Americans and Jews, there is little record in the movement that shows how members of the two groups worked together. To be sure, their goals may have been similar, but when Jews and blacks got together Jews often took the lead; they felt that they had the savvy and know-how about how things should be done properly. Nothing seems to be said in this book, however, about Jews’ patronization and arrogance. Nor is there much [End Page 159] exploration of why blacks had no patience for Jews who claimed that they too had suffered and therefore could understand the plight of African Americans.
Northern Jews like to remember how much they did for the civil rights movement. And there is no question that most were sincerely committed to the success of this endeavor. But their primary goal was achieved with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, essentially, gave most Jews and Jewish organizations the equality of opportunity and the end to legal discrimination that they wanted. After that the intensity of their interest in civil rights abated. African Americans might also have been freed from the bonds of legal discrimination in 1964, but they did not, as a group, have the resources or opportunity to move up the socio-economic ladder quickly or without assistance from others.
Jews were willing to provide some financial help, but they could not resist trying to “uplift” blacks. After King’s assassination in April 1968, many blacks and some members of African American organizations expressed the most virulent antisemitic remarks. This led to the decline of support from many Jews. Without as much money from these former patrons in the late 1960s and 1970s, several African American organizations, SNCC and CORE among them, disintegrated. Schneier, revealing his own attitudes, observes that blacks “had hanged themselves with their own tongues” (p. 180).
Shared Dreams is a worthy book but, unfortunately, says little to those knowledge able about the civil rights movement. On the other hand, it provides a good summary of events, discusses the significant differences between southern and northern Jews’ attitudes, and is insightful in some of its assessments. Certainly it is written more from the “Jewish” viewpoint than...