Review Essay: Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights (Athens: University Press of Georgia, 2001). 

Leonard Rogoff/Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina


Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights presents the most informed, comprehensive look at a subject that has perhaps inspired more comment than study.


The response of native Southern Jews to the civil-rights movement has much to tell about both Jews and Southerners.  The role of northern Jews who came South is well documented.  The Freedom Riders were disproportionately Jews, and national Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and American Jewish Committee were in the forefront of civil-rights advocacy.  From the 1910s, when Jews like helped spawn the NAACP, to the 1960s, when black radicals spurned white patronage, a national Jewish-black alliance is said to have bound the two peoples. Whether this alliance was a matter of principle or self-interest, whether a special relationship existed at all, has been the subject of much polemic, propaganda, and scholarly solicitude. 


Though not numbering more than one percent of the region’s population, Southern Jews offer an interesting test.  Was their behavior exceptional?  Did their response resemble that of their northern co-religionists or that of their Southern white, Christian neighbors?  Is there a relationship between anti-black racism and anti-Semitism?   Is there anything essential in Judaism that obligated Jews to challenge discrimination against black, Christian Southerners?  As persecuted minorities, did Jews and African Americans share a common destiny?

The groundwork for scholarship on these vexing questions was prepared by Allen Krause, who focused on the Reform rabbinate in his essay, “Rabbis and Negro Rights in the South, 1954-1967.”  He observed that Jewish integrationists were often newcomers to the region while segregationists tended to be natives.  Three-quarters of Southern Jews, he concluded, fell in between.  Jews were sympathetic to black aspirations, but fear drove them to silence.  Krause noted that, with some notable exceptions, Reform rabbis did little more than sermonize and lend moral support.  “The southern rabbi has done a good deal,” Krause concluded, “but he could do so much more.”[1] 

"Even Southern Jews who had spoken and acted at personal risk wished that Jewish Freedom Riders would just go away or that northern activist rabbis would take the next plane home."  


Leonard Dinnerstein, the scholar of American anti-Semitism, saw Southern Jews as diverse in their responses, but they mostly conformed to local racial codes.  An anthology that he edited with  Mary Dale Palsson, Jews in the South,[2] included five essays that painted portrayed conflicted Southern Jews caught between their sympathies and their fears.  Boycotts, threats, and a rash of synagogue bombings gave substance to these anxieties.  In another study, “Southern Jewry and the Desegregation Crisis, 1954-1968,”[3] Dinnerstein noted that Southern Jews, as a marginal people, tended to express their integrationist sympathies privately, wanting to avoid provocations.

The consensus that Southern Jews were sympathetic but cowed into silence was challenged by Berkley Kalin and Mark Bauman’s landmark anthology, The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s.  Examining dozens of rabbis across the Southern landscape over the course of a century, the fifteen essayists (including Webb and this reviewer) found “far more widespread activism” than the earlier scholarship had suggested.  Southern rabbis may have spoken in hushed tones, as the title suggests, but speak and act they did, at times with exemplary courage.  

Fight Against Fear takes this “revisionist” argument further, extending the field beyond the rabbinate to Southern Jews generally.   Webb, an Englishman who lectures in American history at the University of Sussex, recognizes, as others have, that there was no collective Southern-Jewish response to civil rights, but he concludes that Southern Jews were not as “weak and ineffectual in the fight against racial equality” (iv) as historians have portrayed them.  Many were motivated by conviction, which they often, although not always, attributed to their Judaism.  Nor is Webb judgmental against those Jews whose valor yielded to discretion. 

The opening chapter presents a cursory review of black-Jewish relations in the South “From Slavery to Segregation.”  Jews were few in the South although present from  colonial times, and their racial attitudes were typically Southern.  Jews owned and traded slaves, though not in significant numbers; some Jews also freed slaves.  When war came, Jews were loyal Confederates.  Though the South has been typified as the least anti-Semitic of America’s regions, with industrialization, the displacement of agrarian white people into the cities, and a rising Jewish immigration, Jews found themselves displaced and discomfited in a bipolar racial society.  These prejudices climaxed in 1913 with the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia.  Jews responded by forming national defense agencies. 

As the civil-rights movement gathered momentum, Webb notes, blacks expected  Jews to step forward with them.  Martin Luther King, Jr. waxed poetic on the “the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom,” but he was speaking of northerners.  He repeatedly expressed disappointment with Southern Jews.  Webb believes that the black leadership had “unrealistic expectations of southern Jews” and “underestimated the extreme danger to which they were exposed” (42).   “The desegregation crisis sparked the largest explosion of anti-Semitism in southern history,” Webb notes (46). Starting in 1958, synagogues were bombed from Florida to North Carolina without regard as to whether the rabbi or congregation had ever identified with civil-rights.   The White Citizens’ Councils that businessmen and civic leaders formed to give segregation a veneer of civic respectability sought to distance themselves from anti-Semitism—indeed, they pressed Jews onto their executive committees—but the snake could not be held in the bag.  Racists pointed to an international Jewish cabal that was orchestrating the civil-rights movement.    The notorious segregationist Leander Perez of the dissident South Louisiana Citizens’ Council put it succinctly: “Zionist Jews are leaders in forcing communistic integration”(49). 

One of Webb’s “central conclusions” is that the black-Jewish alliance took place on a national leadership level, and “there was never any political alliance” in the Southern states.  Southern Jews petitioned national Jewish defense agencies to defer to local community sentiments on integration.   One Little Rock Jew called upon “these rabid organizations…to shut up,” adding, “Let us work out our own problems down here” (74).  Such attitudes were typical.  Even Southern Jews who had spoken and acted at personal risk wished that Jewish Freedom Riders would just go away or that northern activist rabbis would take the next plane home.  Southerners resigned in protest from B’nai B’rith.  Like Southern moderates and liberals generally, they tended to be gradualists.      

Webb’s chapter on Jewish merchants in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Little Rock is subtitled “Caught in the Crossfire.”  Atlanta Blacks had targeted Rich’s Department Store since, as Julian Bond put it, there was an expectation that Dick Rich would be “more sympathetic because he was Jewish” (91).  Rich at first resisted black demands, fearing a white economic backlash. Webb reveals Rich to be a deeply conflicted man who had a personal history in support of social justice.  Rich’s had already been the first major Atlanta department store to integrate its drinking fountains and extend credit to blacks. Webb notes that rarely were Jewish merchants unsympathetic to the protesters or hostile to change even as they resisted demands.  Certainly their prime concern was their economic self-preservation, and they were targeted by black protestors and segregationists alike. “We knew that they were scared,” one black Alabama student activist acknowledged.

Hodding Carter had observed that the White Citizens’ Council did not oppose Jews because “in many cases they do, in truth, share the Council’s views” (114).  Certainly, the Councils sought, and found, their token Jews, but Webb finds them “few and far between” (116).  Jews who did join tended to do so reluctantly from self interest, not principle.  There was never a Jewish segregationist organization like the New Orleans Association of Catholic Laymen.  A previous study by Alfred Hero Jr. had found segregationist Jews tended to be unidentified with Jewishness.  In contrast, Webb cites the examples of three highly visible segregationist Jews—Solomon Blatt of South Carolina, Sol Tepper of Alabama, and Charles Bloch of Georgia.  All were native Southerners from small towns in the Deep South, and all were proud Jews.  Blatt, who served as speaker of the South Carolina legislature from 1937-1973, was an architect of the state’s massive resistance.   Attorney Bloch was a White Citizens’ Council advocate, who ardently defended literacy tests, black disenfranchisement, and police officers accused of murdering blacks.  His book States’ Rights: The Law of the Land laid a legal foundation for segregation. (Bloch’s legal nemesis was his fellow Jewish Georgian, civil-rights attorney Morris Abram.)  Neither Bloch nor Tepper were representative, Webb notes.  Blatt, by contrast, spoke proudly of the state’s racial progress when he  retired as speaker of the South Carolina House, and in 1974 voted for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

"When New Orleans’ Civic Auditorium and Tulane University both refused to host Nobel Peace laureate Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Julian Feibelman ignored threats and opened the doors of Temple Sinai, an integrated event unprecedented in the city’s history."  


Another of Webb’s contributions is to throw “light on the previously neglected role of Jewish women” in the civil rights struggle (148).  They kept their children in desegregated schools and provided disproportionate leadership in groups like Save Our Schools in New Orleans and the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools in Little Rock.   Activist Jewish women tended to be middle-class wives of successful professionals and businessmen, who, unlike their husbands, were not economically constrained.  Elaine Crystal of Jackson served as president of Mississippians for Public Education in the 1960s.  She spoke for many Reform Jewish women when she declared, “My Judaism was what involved me” (168).  

In his reassessment of the rabbinic role Webb observes that rabbis felt pressures to temper their liberalism when confronted with the conservatism of their congregants.  Anxieties were felt more deeply in smaller, isolated towns than in cosmopolitan centers like Atlanta or Houston.  Jews wanted white Christian cover before acting in defense of civil rights, but rabbis in smaller towns especially did not find such ministerial support. In contrast to Christian clergy, no rabbi attempted to justify segregation religiously.  Over half of Southern rabbis were affiliated with the Reform movement, and from their ranks, with notable exceptions, came the activists. Rabbi Ira Sanders of Little Rock had been an integrationist as early as the 1920s, and he had joined the NAACP in 1936.  Rabbi Elijah Palnick and black activist “Sonny” Walker of Little Rock were warm friends, who together integrated the city’s civic clubs.  Blacks attended services at Palnick’s temple.  When New Orleans’ Civic Auditorium and Tulane University both refused to host Nobel Peace laureate Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Julian Feibelman ignored threats and opened the doors of Temple Sinai, an integrated event unprecedented in the city’s history.  Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, a confidant of Dr. King, was relentless in his public pursuit of racial justice, and the picture of the quixotic Rabbi standing in the midst of his bombed Atlanta temple became an icon of the civil-rights era.  For courage few exceeded Mississippi Rabbis Perry Nussbaum of Jackson and Charles Mantinband and David Ben-Ami of Hattiesburg.  Nussbaum traveled to the notorious Parchman penitentiary where he ministered and provided succor to the imprisoned Freedom Riders, Jewish as well as Christian.  In Parchman, Webb wryly notes, “the rabbi conducted the first interracial services ever held in the state of Mississippi” (186).  Hate mail, obscene phone calls, and occasional bombings failed to deter them.  Nussbaum’s synagogue was bombed six months after its dedication.   The police advised the Rabbi and his wife to go into hiding.  Rabbis Charles Mantinband and his successor, David Ben-Ami, crossed racial lines in associating with out-of-state civil-rights activists.  Their congregants no longer wanted them, and they left for pulpits elsewhere. 


The case of Rabbi Milton Grafman of Birmingham reveals the nuances of the Jewish rabbinic predicament.  Grafman had joined eight ministers, who were racial moderates, in opposing King’s protest movement, thinking that demonstrations would upset the orderly, racial progress they thought that Birmingham was making through the recent election of a relative moderate as mayor.  Dr. King responded with his famous “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.”  Grafman, to his personal regret, never lived down the racist label, and Webb demurs.  The rabbi also publicly opposed George Wallace, confronted the Klan, served on integrated city boards, and from his pulpit chastised his congregants to hire more blacks in public positions.  He claimed that he opposed King’s means, not his goals.


Webb focuses on the Deep South battlefields, where the blood flowed more copiously, and the Upper South is somewhat slighted.  He does discuss the case of Rabbi Emmet Frank of Alexandria, Virginia, who provoked a storm by stridently attacking the Harry Byrd machine in an impassioned sermon on the Day of Atonment.  Absent is the noted Rabbi Malcolm Stern, who took a lead in keeping open Norfolk’s schools.   North Carolina, which found tokenism to be more effective than massive resistance, adds further evidence. In 1955, after the governor called for voluntary segregation, the North Carolina Association of Rabbis, in concert with Christian societies, issued proclamations of “whole hearted support” of the Supreme Court decision. Orthodox Rabbi Samuel Friedman of Wilmington served on biracial councils and spoke in black churches.    The roles of editors Harry Golden of the Carolina Israelite or Sylvan Meyer of the Gainesville Times, whose civil-rights editorials won a Pulitzer, deserve more mention.


The tone of Fight Against Fear is apologetic.  Resistance to racial segregation was an unambiguous moral issue although people of goodwill did indeed argue about means.  In giving context to the Jewish response to the civil-rights crisis, Webb does not just aspire to understand but to judge. Dr. King may have felt let down by Jews, but he also expressed disappointment with the white Christian clergy.  “As members of a marginalized religious minority group,” Webb observes, “rabbis were in no position to spearhead a moral crusade against southern racism.”  Jews played at best a supporting role, Webb notes, but “it would appear that in proportionate terms Reform rabbis were the most active of all white southern clergymen in creating a climate of tolerance and understanding in their communities” (216). A “majority of southern Jews were frightened into silence,” Webb concludes, but a “conspicuous minority” were not (219).


[1] Allen Krause, “Rabbis and Negro Rights in the South, 1954-1967,” American Jewish Archives, XXI(April 1969).

[2] Leonard Dinnerstein and Mary Dale Palsson, Jews in the South, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973).

[3] Leonard Dinnerstein, “Southern Jewry and the Desegregation Crisis, 1954-70,” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 62,3(November 1986), 113-22.



© 1998-2003 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

This article published 11/03

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