Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: What we’re really talking about
In 1964, Elaine DeLott Baker left her white working-class Jewish family in Massachusetts and her scholarship at Radcliffe to go to Mississippi, where she spent a year working with SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Many years later, she writes about returning to the black community:
"Being around black people again reminded me of the way I felt when I walked into JFK International after a year abroad and heard the sounds of English being spoken, or how I feel when I return to the town where I was born and walk in the salt air along the beach where I first learned to swim. It is a physical experience, a sense of homecoming. It was, and is, a bittersweet experience... It has been so long since I have been there and so good to feel part of the black community again. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to do, to sink back into the congregation. All that has to happen is for a black person to look me in the eye and say, ‘It's still your struggle' and I'm there."
Baker's words keep coming to mind as I think about a Jewish "take" on Black History Month. I've spent the last several months working intensely on Living the Legacy, a new curriculum on Jews and the Civil Rights Movement, steeping myself in the stories of women and men, northerners and southerners, who intersected with the struggle for civil rights in various ways: some as grassroots activists, some as public leaders, some as naysayers. For some, Jewish values overtly influenced their involvement; for others, the Movement represented a way to escape--or, perhaps, reinvent--the Jewish community.
So my take is a little bit different from the usual Jewish angle on Black History Month, which goes something like "Jews played an important role in the struggle for black civil rights" or "Jews and African Americans share a common history as oppressed peoples." Instead, I'd like to explore some questions: Why do Jews love to talk about Jews and the Civil Rights Movement? What is at stake in the claims of a common "otherness"? Why create a Jewish curriculum about the Civil Rights Movement?
Baker's words hint at many answers. She captures the enduring Jewish sense of identification with the African American community, as well as its bittersweetness--the loss and sadness that whites felt when their African American fellow activists suggested they step back and work on their own issues, letting blacks lead for themselves. She longs to hear "It's still your struggle" but knows that she can only participate if invited to do so. The love and longing, the tension and disappointment--it's all there. And which struggle are we talking about, exactly?
For American Jews, the Civil Rights Movement came at a momentous time. The community still carried a collective memory of discrimination and exclusion, pogroms and Holocaust, even as Jews of European descent benefited from their relatively recent white privilege, moving into the mainstream middle class and even into the educated elite. For many Jews, civil rights activism was possible because of these privileges, even as it appealed to them because of their history and enduring sense of otherness, or their shame at having joined postwar suburbia.
Today, too, the history of Jews and civil rights activism remains resonant to many Jews, farther now from their immigrant roots and ethnically bleached by assimilation. The Civil Rights Movement has become a touchstone of our progressive credentials, our "otherness," proof that we are something other than regular privileged folks indistinguishable from the rest of white America. Often, our interest in the Civil Rights Movement is narcissistic--an interest in ourselves, more than in the experiences and rights of African Americans. Behind the cover of the "civil rights struggle," we are, in fact, struggling with our own place--and power--in America.
I do believe that studying the history of Jews and the Civil Rights Movement is valuable. I have, after all, spent months developing a curriculum to do just that! But the purpose should not be mere celebration, patting ourselves on the back for the disproportionate representation of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, we need to ask, why was that disproportion the case, and what can we learn from it today? And what about the fact that there were many Jews who were ambivalent at best about the Civil Rights Movement? It's an opportunity to explore contemporary American Jewish identity and its relationship to politics, to examine the Jewish values that motivate us, to learn from the challenges and gifts of partnerships that cross racial, ethnic, class, and regional boundaries.
In the end, this post is inspired by Black History Month, but it is not about Black History Month. (You'll note I haven't mentioned a single African American, Jewish or not.) What I'm talking about here, really, is a (white) Jewish story, and its intersection with black history. We make a mistake when we teach Jewish history and pretend that we're teaching Black History. Whose struggle, I'll ask again, are we talking about?
The Living the Legacy curriculum is now being piloted and will be available to the public at jwa.org in Fall 2010. The curriculum is also the focus of JWA's 2010 Institute for Educators.