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  • To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement by P. Allen Krause
  • Josh Parshall (bio)
To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement. By P. Allen Krause with Stephen Krause, edited by Mark K. Bauman. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2016. xviii + 402 pp.

At the 1966 convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Toronto, Hebrew Union College rabbinical student P. Allen Krause interviewed thirteen acting or former rabbis of Reform congregations in southern cities about the civil rights movement. Although Krause wrote a thesis based on his interviews and published some of his findings [End Page 163] (stripped of identifying information about the interviewees) in the American Jewish Archives Journal, the recordings and other research materials were partially sealed for twenty-five years.

To Stand Aside or Stand Alone makes these interviews widely available as transcripts for the first time. Rabbi Krause returned to historical research around the time of his retirement in 2008 and, with encouragement from historian and editor Mark Bauman, developed the now fifty-year-old interviews into a book project. After Krause died in 2012, his son Stephen worked with Bauman to finish the manuscript, which supplements the transcripts with biographical sketches and brief local histories by Rabbi Krause as well as introductions to the interviews by Bauman. Both the author and editor provide important contextual information in their introductions, and Bauman's bibliographic essay situates the newly available primary sources in relation to the historiography of southern Jews and African American civil rights.

Krause's interviews follow a standard format. Each rabbi discusses the development of local civil rights activism, the reactions of the non-Jewish white community in comparison to the views of local Jews, white Christian clergy's responses to the challenges of civil rights, their own participation or lack thereof in local struggles, and their opinions about the actions of national Jewish groups and northern Jewish activists. The rabbis' responses vary according to the hostility with which white communities reacted to the prospect of desegregation and also according to their own activities. Krause labels more progressive environments "The Land of the Almost Possible" and the most reactionary cities "The Land of the Almost Impossible." While differences in local political climate greatly affected the availability of potential allies among white Christian clergy and white civic leaders, the interviews demonstrate that rabbis' political perspectives, personal experiences with race and racism, and strengths and weaknesses as religious leaders all affected the actions that they took (or did not take) in regard to civil rights.

For the most part, the interviews represent the experiences and activities of moderate progressive rabbis, and (as Krause intended) the book establishes them as part of the liberal contingent of the white South. Some, such as James Wax in Memphis and William Silverman in Nashville, publicly supported African American civil rights and were well known throughout their local communities for their progressive attitudes. A larger number promoted desegregation from their pulpits and worked behind the scenes with ministerial and civic groups to support civil rights reforms. Only a few of the rabbis expressed strong reservations about desegregation or reported no concrete civil rights action.

With a few interesting exceptions, then, the rabbis featured in the book deserve credit for helping to smooth the path of desegregation in [End Page 164] their respective locales, even if courts, the federal government, and direct action by local protesters played more significant roles. At the same time, many of the interviews encapsulate the moderate liberal viewpoints of the time, which often second-guessed activists' tactics; predicated the extension of civil and economic rights on black southerners' adherence to white, middle-class norms; and exhibited a strong sense of racial and class-based paternalism. As a result, the rabbis' testimonies reflect the complicated tensions among liberal white southerners' empathy for African Americans, their internalized acceptance of segregationist logics, and the various risks—social, economic, and bodily—that constrained would-be allies in the civil rights struggle. Their stories become useful not merely as tools for praising or critiquing southern Jews and their rabbis but also for understanding how...


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pp. 163-165
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