‘Then and Now: Black-Jewish Relations in the Civil Rights Movement’

In a Katz Center event, Anthea Butler addressed the history and potential future of intercultural relations.

Historical mugshots of 15 people wearing signs around their necks that say, "Police Dept. Jackson, Miss., 7.2.61" along with prison identification numbers
Entire busloads of Freedom Riders were arrested when they reached southern states (here, Jackson Mississippi, 1961). Interfaith collaboration was a vital part of the Civil Rights Movement, Butler said. (Image: Adam Jones)

After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1937, Joachim Prinz, a rabbi, tackled injustice in America. He became the first rabbi to reach out to Martin Luther King Jr. and later spoke during the 1963 March on Washington, saying, “As Americans, we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice.”

This sense of history and shared commitment was brought to the fore by Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies and Africana studies, during “Then and Now: Black-Jewish Relations in the Civil Rights Movement.” The event, hosted by the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, was part of a fall series connected to the theme of how Jews fit in to the America to come, said Katz Center Director Steven Weitzman, who introduced the speaker.

Butler began with an overview of the collaboration between Blacks and Jews during civil rights history and went on to describe how it soured. The relationship “has not been tended to,” she said.

For Jews, much of the impetus to align with African Americans came after the domestic terrorism perpetrated against Jewish buildings and institutions during the late 1950s, including The Temple in Atlanta and Temple Beth El in Birmingham, Alabama, both in 1958. This has a disturbing correlation today, Butler said, showing information from the Anti-Defamation League documenting the doubling of incidents of vandalism, harassment, and assault during the last five years.

These acts were part of the overarching violence that happened during the Civil Rights Movement, Butler said, “and so the effect of this was to have many people who were in the Jewish community decide to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement, not simply because it was the right thing to do but because this was an existential threat against their own communities.”

Butler said King addressed the American Jewish Congress in 1958 because it represented “one of the few organizations holding a convention in the South and wanted to bring the issue of integration forward.” During his speech, King said that “every Negro leader is aware that segregationist makes no fine distinction between Negroes and Jews.” The segregationists’ aim is to “use scapegoats to facilitate their political and social rule over all people,” he said. “Our common fight is against these deadly enemies of democracy, and our glory is that when we are chosen to prove that courage is a characteristic of oppressed people, however cynically and brutally they are denied full equality and freedom.”

The Jewish Freedom Riders who rode interstate buses into the South in the summer of 1961 to protest segregated public transportation are an example of this common fight, Butler said, using historic images to showcase the names and faces of regular citizens along with renowned leaders. “Interfaith cooperation is really an important part of the Civil Rights Movement,” she said.

The erosion of the Black-Jewish relationship has multiple causes, she said, including anti-Semitic slurs used by Louis Farrakan and Jesse Jackson, the waning influence of institutions like the NAACP and the Urban League, the African American Christian alliance with evangelicals, and Israeli/Palestinian tensions.

“What I think is important to all of us living in America right now, both American Jews and African American people alike, is the fact that our communities are being threatened by white supremacy and anti-Semitism, and people are dying because of these things. We need to figure out a way to talk about this, first of all, and secondarily to reestablish alliances between our communities, so that we are able to fight against the perils that are coming at us from the outside.”

Butler said she hopes Blacks and Jews can move into the next year and beyond by thinking about the ways in which they can partner, “not only to share our history together but to go forward together in terms of finding a better way and a better life for all of us.” She shared images and stories of Jewish people coming to Black Lives Matter demonstrations, including areas like Crown Heights in New York City, that have had a history of racial tension. “I think that this might be a moment that’s a bridge,” Butler said. While this period in history has heightened safety concerns for both Blacks and Jews, she said, “we have a moment in which people are going to have to get together because that’s the only way we’re going to repair any of this.”

Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and the interim chair of religious studies in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven Weitzman is the Ella Darivoff Director at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.