Power, Privilege, and Responsibility

Unit 1, Lesson 4

Analyze how power and privilege shape our relationships and involvement in social justice and activism, using sources including clips from the film Driving Miss Daisy.


Enduring Understandings

  • One's power and privilege shape one's relationships and one's involvement in social justice and activism.

Essential Questions

  • How did systems and personal experiences of power, privilege, responsibility, and dignity affect individual relationships between American Jews and African Americans in the era of the Civil Rights Movement?
  • How do power and privilege operate in contemporary movements?
  • How do power and privilege operate in your own life?

Notes to Teacher

You will need to get hold of a copy of the film Driving Miss Daisy for part II of the lesson plan. The clips are not available on the JWA website. The scene numbers indicated in this lesson may not correspond to the scene selections in your copy of the DVD, and/or you may need to manually stop your DVD/video in the right spot. (The two clips used in this lesson occur immediately after one another.)

You may want to begin this lesson by introducing the concepts of power, oppression, and privilege. We suggest using the definitions in the Vocabulary section below. (These concepts are also found in Unit 1, Lesson 2. If you already taught that lesson, ask students to help define these terms.)

You may want to point out that power and privilege are not always visible to those who have them. Because privilege is generally unearned and may have always been part of one's experience, they can easily be taken for granted as "just the way things are" or not even noticed. Additionally, some individuals who possess power and privilege for reasons beyond their control, i.e. being born white or inheriting wealth, may be self-conscious of their position when faced with others' suffering, oppression, or experience of injustice. You can ask students if they can think of examples of power or privilege in their own lives/communities.

Though the documents in this lesson (the letters as well as the film) explore how power and privilege play out within interpersonal relationships, you should also emphasize that power, oppression, and privilege are social systems. Though they certainly shape and influence our interpersonal relationships, they do not originate there, but rather are larger structures that help organize all the ways society operates. (The systemic nature of power and privilege also contributes to their invisibility.) These larger systems can be broken down into different kinds of power and privilege – such as patriarchy (the social system based on governance by or dominance of males) or white supremacy.

Depending on the sophistication of your students, they may be more or less attuned to issues of power and privilege, so you may need to devote some time to unpacking these concepts and helping students become aware of how power and privilege operate in their own lives. You may want to use Peggy McIntosh’s classic article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to help with this conversation.

In teaching this material on power and privilege, it is important to be aware of differences in power and privilege among your students. For example, if you have non-white students, make sure that discussions of white privilege do not assume shared whiteness (i.e. through using terms like “we” when discussing the experiences of white people). Also be careful to avoid putting students on the spot; though it is natural for students to be curious about the experiences of peers who come from different backgrounds, some may not feel comfortable answering questions about whether they feel oppressed or resentful toward people with more power or privilege, and students who have not considered their own privilege and power before may feel guilty when they recognize what they take for granted.

Introductory essay(s)

American Jews, Race, Identity, and the Civil Rights Movement

by Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive

Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy Unit 1, Lessons 1-4

In every generation, people shape their sense of themselves and their place in society within the frameworks defined by their local community and the larger national community. What does it mean to be white? What constitutes Jewishness? (Is it a race? An ethnicity? A religion? A nationality?) The answers to these questions are not fixed but rather are constantly shifting, especially in a modern context in which people have multiple, sometimes competing, identities.

Race may, at first glance, seem to be the most immutable identity – existing "in the blood" or written on one's skin – but it is actually fluid. Before the mid-19th century, European immigrants to the United States were mostly absorbed into the white population, and Jews – though considered religiously "other" and often socially separate – were not viewed in racial terms. But the rise of mass immigration from Europe, beginning in the 1840s, brought in a new wave of immigrants too large to be easily assimilated, and this new social reality of large urban populations with a heavy European immigrant flavor led to a recasting of racial categories and relations. The ruling elite classes (predominantly wealthy, American-born Protestants) expressed their fears of "race suicide" as the "native" stock was infiltrated and overrun by these "inferior races" first from Ireland and then from Eastern and Southern Europe. This immigration wave brought nearly 2 million Jews to the United States, outnumbering the German Jewish elite who had arrived in the mid-19th century and transforming the American Jewish community, which had been predominantly Sephardic (of Spanish/Portuguese origin), into a predominantly Ashkenazi population, as it remains today.

The new racism that arose in response to the immigration wave was rooted in supposed science – intelligence tests and a eugenics movement that focused on breeding "better" people, as opposed to the "feebleminded" Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans. This "scientific racism" justified the passage of legislation that outlawed Chinese immigration (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) and heavily restricted immigration except from Northern Europe (Johnson Act of 1924). The government and businesses limited the social mobility of those "inferior races" who had already settled in the US through policies such as quotas in higher education, corporate hiring restrictions, and, in the postwar period, federal housing loan policies that enforced racial segregation and subsidized the suburbanization of white populations.

In this context of changing perceptions of race, the racial identification of Jews underwent significant shifts. On one level, most Jews were always considered white in that they were permitted to become naturalized citizens – a right reserved only for "free white persons," according to the 1790 law set in place by the first Congress. But during the years of the large wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe (roughly 1880-1924), Jews were counted among the many European groups (the 1911 Dillingham Commission Report on Immigration identified 36 different European races) classified as not quite white, or racially "other." (Some Jews, for example, were classified as "Hebrew.") Who fell into this racially suspect category depended on who was seen as different, unassimilable, or a threat to the nation, as well as who was perceived as providing essential (though devalued) labor. In the 1860s, the Irish were singled out for their savagery and racial weakness; by the end of the 19th century, Jews often bore the brunt of anti-immigration racism, targeted as the racial scourge overrunning and infecting urban areas. Political cartoons, for example, often depicted Jews as dirty, diseased, and criminal. Though expressed in racial terms, this anti-immigrant sentiment also intersected with fears of the rising working class and of political radicalism.

This racial definition of Jewishness, though derogatory when applied by non-Jews, could also serve a positive purpose for Jews. Many Jews embraced race as something that united them – a kind of identity deeper than belief or religious practice, something primal, defying assimilation. Racial identification resonated with a Jewish sense of peoplehood – an identification that was not entirely captured by the definition of Jewishness as solely a religious identity – and fulfilled the desire to preserve a minority identity.

Soon after the Johnson Act effectively closed the door on immigration from anywhere but Northern Europe, conventional wisdom on racial classification moved toward the recognition of three main races: Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid. This meant that the many different European races – including Jews – were consolidated into a monolithic category of Caucasian whiteness, and the primary racial distinction in America became the black/white binary.

Several factors led to this consolidation of whiteness. In light of the severe immigration restriction, those formerly considered "racially other" now posed less of a threat. Without a steady stream of new immigrants, the Eastern and Southern European populations were now predominantly American born, not immigrants themselves, and thus seemed less different and more easily assimilable. At the same time, the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban North and West between 1910s and 1940s threw the distinction between black and white into sharper relief.

The involvement of African Americans in World War II also caused a major shift in racial issues on the home front. The dissonance African Americans experienced between fighting for democracy abroad but being denied its benefits at home led to a surge in civil rights activism, particularly around segregation of the armed forces and the defense industries. As segregation (also known as "Jim Crow") became the central American racial issue, racial differences among whites became less important. By emphasizing the black/white binary, Jim Crow could work to solidfy the whiteness of certain groups, such as Jews, who had previously been considered ambiguously white. Finally, Nazi Germany served as a sharp reminder of the horrific dangers of race-based classifications.

After World War II, Jewishness remained a social distinction but no longer a racial one. For example, Jews were allowed to move into white suburban neighborhoods that the Federal Housing Authority policy determined were only for people of the "same social and racial classes" (though some communities instituted housing covenants that excluded Jews). "Ethnicity" became the new language to describe difference among whites, now seen as cultural – a distinction that further entrenched the black/white divide by implying that racial differences go deeper than cultural differences. The new racial system defined whiteness as the "normal" American state, and blackness as a racial problem.

Many scholars have argued that Jews in the South were the first Jews to see themselves as white, but the case of Leo Frank makes clear that they occupied an ambiguous middle category of racial outsider. In April 1913, a 14-year-old white girl was murdered in a pencil factory in Atlanta, and Leo Frank, a Jewish part-owner and manager of the factory, was convicted of the crime based on the testimony of a black janitor. When his sentence was commuted by the Governor in August 1915, a mob pulled him out of the prison where he was being held and lynched him. That a supposedly white man could be convicted based on the testimony of a black man, and the use of lynching as the method of (illegally) meting out his punishment, demonstrates the contingency of Frank's perceived whiteness.

Throughout the postwar period, the social position of Jews in the South was precarious, despite the fact that Southern Jews were among those Jews with the longest roots in the US. Jews in the South were accepted as part of the social fabric, and in many cities were prominent business people who often ran the local store, but they were also seen as different from other whites and somewhat suspect, and in some cases excluded along with blacks. They had to work hard to fit in, and many Jews were reluctant to take action that would set them apart from the other white community leaders. They felt they needed to assure their own equality and security first, and therefore were often hesitant to engage in overt, public civil rights activism, though some supported civil rights in quiet, private ways.

While for some Southern Jews, association with the Civil Rights Movement confirmed for their white neighbors a lingering sense that Jews were racially tainted, for many Northern Jews, involvement in the Civil Rights Movement served to further solidify Jewish whiteness. Allying themselves with blacks cast into sharper relief the whiteness of Jews – ironically, since many Jews were motivated to civil rights activism by a sense of identification with African Americans and a persistent sense of "otherness" despite having, by and large, "made it" in America.

Today, many American Jews retain an ambivalence about whiteness, despite the fact that the vast majority have benefited and continue to benefit from white privilege. This ambivalence stems from many different places: a deep connection to a Jewish history of discrimination and otherness; a moral imperative to identify with the stranger; an anti-universalist impulse that does not want Jews to be among the "melted" in the proverbial melting pot; an experience of prejudice and awareness of the contingency of whiteness; a feeling that Jewish identity is not fully described by religion but has some ethnic/tribal component that feels more accurately described by race; and a discomfort with contemporary Jewish power and privilege.

And of course, while there is a tendency in the US, where the majority of Jews are of Eastern European descent, to assume a shared white racial identity for Jews, many Jews are in fact not white. Throughout history, Jews have come in all colors and from all places, and have almost always lived multicultural lives. The "mixed multitude" of the Jewish people include Jews from Arab lands (Mizrahi Jews), Jews with roots in Spain and Portugal (Sephardic Jews), and Jews from India, Asia, and Africa, some of whose ancestors may have been separated from the rest of the Jewish community many centuries ago. There are many Jews of color whose families have been Jewish for generations, if not centuries. In an American context that increasingly values diversity, the backgrounds and colors of the Jewish community are also enriched by adoption, intermarriage, and conversion. The Institute for Jewish and Community Research, an organization that studies the demography of the Jewish people, estimates that at least 20% of the American Jewish population is what they term "racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage."

Just as the definition of racial categories in America is always shifting, as illustrated by changes in the options for racial self-definition on the US Census, so, too, does the definition of Jewish identity and the image of what Jewish looks like continue to change.

Lesson plan

Text Study: Letters Home

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  1. Distribute the "Letters Home" Document Study to your class. Review the italicized introduction with your students. Share some basic facts about Freedom Summer (see Unit 2, Lesson 4 for more information).
  2. Have a student read Lew's letter out loud. Using the questions on the Document Study, discuss this document with your class. Try to emphasize the issues of privilege and power present in the relationships between white and African American activists in the North, and that while Jews might identify with African Americans they didn't really know what it was like to be African American. Emphasize that while the documents in this lesson explore these issues of power and privilege at an interpersonal level, they resulted from larger social structures and institutions.
  3. Have a student read Ellen's letter out loud. Using the questions on the Document Study, discuss this document with your class. Try to emphasize the issues of distrust between African Americans and whites and the difference that sometimes occurs between what we say we believe or are committed to and what our actions say.
  4. After reading both letters, ask your students the following wrap-up questions. (You may want to write their responses on the board for reference later in class.)
    1. What type of relationship did these white activists want to have with their African American counterparts? In what ways was this type of relationship realistic? In what ways wasn't it realistic? Why? What personal experiences and larger social structures got in the way of the ideals whites brought to their civil rights activism?
    2. What issues came between many white and African American activists?

Driving Miss Daisy

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  1. Introduce the movie using information in the synopsis and scene descriptions below.
  2. Show Clip #1, Temple Bombing. (In some versions of the DVD the Temple Bombing is scene 18.) After showing the clip, ask a couple of students to describe what happened objectively, in their own words, and then discuss some of the following questions:
    1. When Miss Daisy asks who would bomb the Temple, Hoke responds, "You know as good as me. Always be the same ones." To whom do you think Hoke is referring?
    2. Why do you think the Temple bombing made Hoke think of the lynching of his friend's father? How are these events similar and/or different?
    3. Does Miss Daisy see herself and her experiences as similar to or different from Hoke and his experiences? What evidence do you have? How similar or different do you think they are? What is the biggest difference between them?
    4. Describe where you see power and privilege at work in this scene. At what points do you think Miss Daisy and/or Hoke seem especially aware of these issues?
  3. Show Clip #2, King Dinner. (In some versions of the DVD the King Dinner is scene 19.) After showing the clip, ask a couple of students to describe what happened objectively, in their own words, and then discuss some of the following questions:
    1. Recall the reasons Boolie gave for why he didn't want to go to the King dinner. Are you sympathetic towards him? Why or why not?
    2. Miss Daisy says she's not prejudiced. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
    3. How does Hoke react to Miss Daisy's last minute mention of a possible invitation to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at the dinner? What did you think about his reaction?
    4. Describe where you see power and privilege at work in this scene. At what points do you think Miss Daisy and/or Hoke seem especially aware of these issues?
  4. After showing both clips, you may want to discuss some of the following questions with your students:
    1. Do you think Miss Daisy treats Hoke with respect and dignity? Do you think Hoke treats Miss Daisy with respect and dignity? What accounts for the differences in the ways they treat each other?
    2. Miss Daisy has the power in this relationship both in the sense that she is Hoke's boss, and in the sense that as a white Jew she has more power in society than does Hoke as an African American. Do you think Miss Daisy's actions reflect what she says about herself and her beliefs? How could Miss Daisy better wield her power? What, if anything, do you think Miss Daisy learns from her encounters with Hoke?
    3. Return to the student responses you wrote on the board after the previous activity. Ask your students:
      1. How are the issues raised by Driving Miss Daisy different and/or similar to the issues raised by Lew and Ellen's letters?
      2. The letters were written by real people, while the movie is a fictional story. What can we learn from facts? What limitations are there to learning from facts? What can we learn from fiction? What limitations are there to learning from fiction?


Based on Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer-prize winning play of the same name, Driving Miss Daisy tells the story of Miss Daisy, a southern widow from a well-to-do family, who lives alone except for her African American maid and driver. The movie focuses on the relationship between Miss Daisy and her driver, Hoke. It is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta, GA. While Miss Daisy and her son, Boolie, appear to support the Civil Rights Movement in a general way, their actions on a more personal level are complicated by their position in the community and their own assumptions about race, class, and social roles at times appear inconsistent with this support.

Clip #1:

Temple Bombing (Scene 18)
Miss Daisy is sitting in her car, stuck in traffic. It's raining outside and we see her driver, Hoke, carrying an umbrella, returning to the car after finding out the cause of the traffic jam). Hoke explains that Miss Daisy cannot go to the temple today because it has been bombed. At first, Miss Daisy doesn't want to believe Hoke. Then she asks, rhetorically, "Who would do something like that?" Hoke responds to the question, saying "You know it's always the same ones." Later in the scene, Hoke tells a story from his youth when a friend's father was lynched. He explains that the temple bombing reminded him of the story; however, Miss Daisy refuses to see a connection between the two events.

Clip #2

King Dinner (Scene 19)
Boolie, Miss Daisy's son, arrives at her house. He tells her that while he supports Martin Luther King, Jr., he can't go to the dinner where King is speaking because it might not be good for his business. If people think he supports King, Boolie explains, they might call him names behind his back, throw business to other businessmen, and not let him know about other business deals or events. Boolie is also surprised that Miss Daisy is so committed to going to the dinner. She responds, "I've never been prejudiced in my life." Boolie suggests that maybe she should invite Hoke, her driver, to go to the dinner with her. Shortly thereafter, we see Hoke driving Miss Daisy to the King dinner. On the way, Miss Daisy tells Hoke about her conversation with Boolie and how silly it is that he would think that Hoke would want to go to the dinner. She also assumes that Hoke knows King. Just before they arrive at their destination, Hoke suggests that in the future if Miss Daisy wants to invite him to attend a function with her that she invite him properly and not wait until they are in the car on the way to the function. As the scene ends, we see Miss Daisy listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, while she sits at a table with well-dressed people and an empty seat at an elegant dinner and then we see Hoke sitting in Miss Daisy's car listening to the same speech on the radio.

Journaling Exercise

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  1. Make sure that your students have blank, lined paper, and a writing implement. Prepare them for a journaling exercise. You may choose to have the students keep their journaling exercise or hand it in.
  2. Ask the students to consider the story that Ellen tells about her family's African American maid and the scenes from Miss Daisy about the Martin Luther King, Jr. dinner. Remind your students that these are examples of people's words and actions not quite matching (or examples of the limitations of people's beliefs about their own lack of racism). Explain that this is also a challenge in our world today.
  3. Have your students reflect and write on one of the following:
    • Describe a situation today in which you or someone you know or a public figure has proclaimed certain values and then acted in ways that did not reflect those values. How could this person better align his/her actions with his/her beliefs? Which do you think speak louder, words or actions? Why?
    • How do power and privilege shape your life? Give a specific example.

OPTIONAL: Text Study: Power, Privilege, and Social Justice

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  1. Remind your students that one of the issues between some African Americans and whites that we've already discussed is one of power and privilege. The white activists whose letters we read were from middle-class backgrounds. Their families had "made it" and since they didn't have to fight for their own rights they could fight for someone else's rights. However, not all Jews in America have power and privilege.
  2. Distribute the Power, Privilege, and Social Justice Document Study to your students.
  3. Have a couple of students take turns reading aloud the introductory material and the excerpt from Paul Cowan's book An Orphan in History. Stop them occasionally to clarify terms or phrases, or provide a little extra background information.
  4. Discuss the document with your class using some or all of the questions provided. Emphasize what Cowan discovers about how power and privilege relate to social justice issues, while encouraging your students to share their own responses to the situation he describes.
Document studies

"Letters Home" Document Study

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In 1964, many young northern white activists participated in a civil rights project called Mississippi Freedom Summer. Some of these activists shared their feelings and experiences in letters they wrote home to families and friends. While the letters below may not have been written by Jewish civil rights activists, they express views shared by many. (Note that the orientation and training program for Freedom Summer was held at Western College in Oxford, OH.)

Letter Home from Lew

Oxford, Ohio

Dear Mom and Jo,

The reception at Western College was not warm. I was surprised at how unfriendly and unextending people were. Small groups formed or had been formed and people seemed concerned with “fitting in.” I went to bed. Later that day (today) I went to register. I still felt uncomfortable but attempted to shake a few hands. (It wasn’t too bad.) Some people were friendly and helpful. Tremendous enthusiasm was generated when we all began singing after dinner. It was the spiritual revival type of singing and you know how I love that. We all must have sung for about 2 hours, and the previous in-grouping of Negroes and reservedness of whites seemed to disappear – but not really…Maybe we’ll be able to at the end of the summer, but right now we don’t know what it is to be a Negro and even if we did, the Negroes here would not accept us. It’s the old case of having to prove ourselves. In their eyes we’re rich middle or upperclass whites who have taken off a summer to help the Negro.

Intellectually, I think many of us whites can understand the Negroes’ resentment but emotionally we want to be “accepted” at face value. We want this acceptance because this is part of our reason for going down south, i.e., the basic worth of the individual. I’ve always thought that my relations with Negroes have been fairly honest. I’ve gone to a predominantly Negro high school and participated in athletics with them. I’ve gotten to know Negroes in college… I haven’t gone out of my way to meet them but those I have met I have gotten along well with, if not intimately. What I mean to say is that I never detected a “difference,” or an inability to communicate with one another… But what I am finding here is a different situation and perhaps a more honest one…

Love, Lew

Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 5. Permission granted by Zephyr Press.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. When was this document written? (At the time of the events described? After the events described took place?)
  3. What type of document is this? Who was the intended audience for this document? How might this have influenced the content of the document?
  4. What kind of reception did Lew receive at Western College? How might you describe the atmosphere of in-groups and out-groups? Does it remind you of any experiences you've encountered?
  5. What kind of reception do you think Lew wanted/expected?
  6. According to Lew, how did the African American volunteers view the white Northern activists? How do you think Lew and the other white Northern activists viewed themselves? How might the difference between these perceptions cause tension between the two groups?
  7. Lew writes that "right now we don't know what it is to be a Negro." Does he think this is an important thing to know? If so, why? Why do you think this lack of knowledge could be a source of tension among the white and black activists?
  8. At the end of the letter Lew says, "But what I am finding here is a different situation and perhaps a more honest one…" How is it more honest? What issues divided whites and blacks in the Civil Rights Movement? How did the tensions Lew describes compare to the ideals and idealism of the Civil Rights Movement?

Letter to Peggy from Ellen

Dear Peggy:
… All whites who read [James] Baldwin ask, “Is he right? Do they really hate us?” I have never before talked to a Negro about his feelings towards whites. A wonderful Negro man from Detroit named Joe Harrison told me here at Oxford, “I always feel much more comfortable with Negroes than with whites. But I can become good friends with white people.”

And one SNCC worker – Frank Smith – said, “I grew up hating all white folks. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I learned that there could be good whites – and even now I sometimes wonder.”

So there is this great reluctance and distrust, born of generations of oppression and slavery… It seems that if more whites understood this – especially white liberals – race relations might be a lot less strained.

I have also discovered a lot about my own feelings about race. I grew up in an upper middle-class Westchester home, where my parents were good liberals, but I never knew any Negroes except the woman who cooked and cleaned for us. I loved her very much and she, me… We all called her “Sarah” while she called me “Ellen” and my parents “Mr. and Mrs.”

Consequently, although my parents told me that Negroes were just as good as whites – I must have seen them in the role of servants. Once, my mother tells me, when I was little, we were driving along a road near our house and passed a Negro woman waiting for a bus. “There’s somebody’s maid,” I said.

To arrive in Ohio, when there were 60 or 70 Negro kids my age – all close friends and rather cliquish at first – was a frightening experience. It was not that I looked down on them at all – quite the contrary: I was awed by them. For the first few days, I mostly hung around with the kids from Harvard. I sat with them at meals or in meetings, walking by the groups of Negro kids who also sat together at the table or under a tree on the grass… But as the week wore on, things began to change.


Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 6-7. Permission granted by Zephyr Press.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. When was this document written? (At the time of the events described? After the events described took place?)
  3. What type of document is this? Who was the intended audience for this document? How might this have influenced the content of the document?
  4. According to discussions that Ellen had with a few African American volunteers, how did they view white people? To what does Ellen credit their attitude? What does slavery have to do with it?
  5. What does Ellen mean when she calls her parents "good liberals"? What assumptions does that phrase carry?
  6. As "good liberals," what message do you think Ellen's parents gave her verbally about whites and blacks? What do you think is the difference between the liberalism of her parents and Ellen's own view of race relations?
  7. What kind of contact/relationship did Ellen have with African Americans growing up? What difference in respect/power/dignity are suggested by the ways that her family addressed their black maid and the way their maid addressed Ellen's family?
  8. What message was conveyed by her parents' actions and by the social context in which Ellen grew up? How was this message different from the verbal message her "good liberal" parents gave her?
  9. What are some examples from today of differences between someone's convictions, as expressed by what they say, and their actions?

"Power, Privilege, and Social Justice" Document Study

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Paul Cowan, An Orphan in History, excerpt on Jewish experience

Paul Cowan grew up in an upper-middle-class American Jewish family where he absorbed the Jewish values of his mother, Polly Cowan, who believed that Jews had a special responsibility to help those who were less fortunate. Like his mother, Paul Cowan lived these values when he became a civil rights activist. But his experience also taught him that acting on Jewish values of social justice was a privilege not available to all American Jews. Working as a journalist, Cowan encountered many different people and situations that at times led him to reconsider his world views. Here he recounts an encounter with Jewish refugees from Europe, who opposed the building of low-income housing projects for blacks and Puerto Ricans in their neighborhood.

I spent one afternoon walking on the picket line with an elderly Jewish couple, Romanians who had fled to Russia during World War II, then migrated to Newark, Greenwich Village, and Forest Hills, where they owned a grocery story. They had been chased and harassed all their lives – first by Hitler, then by the Communists, then by blacks in Newark and Italians in the Village. They were convinced that people were better off among their own kind – an idea that sounded reactionary to me. When I mentioned that I was Jewish, the old woman asked me, “Do you think we will all be chased from New York?” What gruesome experience lingered in her mind, producing that question? Surely her desire for security wasn’t merely a form of bigotry…The crowd’s chant brought me back to Mississippi. Those white kids at the swimming pool had been muttering similar invectives as they drank their beer and looked at Polly’s motel room. So I asked the couple from Romania if the crowd’s chant about black people awakened memories of the chants that were directed at them because they were Jews?

“No,” the man said.

“You see, we’re trying to protect ourselves here. I wish the Jews had done the same thing in Europe.”

How could I see them as any more – or any less – oppressed than the blacks and Hispanics who might move into the project they were protesting so vehemently? Talking with them, and with others in their position, I realized that my flashbacks to Mississippi were inappropriate. The issue in Forest Hills involved two competing claims, not right and wrong.

When I published my article, I was afraid that my mother would think I was too soft on the Romanians and their counterparts; that I was explaining their racism away. In fact, she agreed with my article. But the chain of thought that began during those days in Forest Hills produced new questions, new sympathies that I could never quite explain to her, though my father understood them completely. For, though she has remained my political conscience, I realized that there was a contradiction in the belief she and I had always shared, that all Jews were mandated by history to be more ethical than other people. It allowed the Cowans, with our wealth, to argue that Jews with less money, less mobility, less access to powerful people than we had were somehow immoral if they organized their lives around their own self-interest. If they were survivors, we romanticized them without understanding them – or, on the other hand, assumed that their years in the camps should have made them less bigoted. If they were American-born people, who wanted the same security for their families as we had on Park Avenue, we tended to dismiss them as selfish business people or as bigots.

Excerpts are from An Orphan in History: One Man's Triumphant Search for His Jewish Roots Copyright 2002 by Paul Cowan (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, www.jewishlights.com.

Discussion Questions


  1. Who wrote this document? What was his role in the events he describes?
  2. When was this document written? (At the time of the events described? After the events described took place?) Why might when the document was written matter in what we learn from this document?
  3. What experiences does Paul Cowan bring to this event? How do they shape his initial view of the issues?
  4. Who are the picketers? What are they protesting? Why?
  5. What experiences do the picketers bring to this event? How do these experiences shape their view of the issues?
  6. In what ways are Paul Cowan and the picketers the same? In what ways are they different?


  1. How does Paul Cowan's view of the issues change as a result of his experience on this picket line?
  2. Near the end of the document, Paul Cowan says, "I realized that there was a contradiction in the belief she and I had always shared, that all Jews were mandated by history to be more ethical than other people." What do you think the contradiction is that Cowan has discovered? How might you rewrite the phrase "all Jews were mandated by history to be more ethical than other people" to make it more accurately reflect the reality that Paul Cowan has discovered on the picket line?
  3. If, as in this case, none of the parties has power (Jews, Hispanics, and blacks are all portrayed as oppressed), is there a way to resolve the issue? Who else (present or not) might have the power to resolve the issue of competing claims? What is their responsibility?
  4. What other situations or conflicts does this story make you think of? Who has power in those situations? How, if at all, have they been resolved?


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The ability to control circumstances


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A system that gives certain people power and privilege at the expense of other people


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Generally unearned advantages and beliefs that benefit some, often at the expense of others.

Mississippi Freedom Summer

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A community organizing project that took place during the summer of 1964, in which northerners went South to help African-Americans register to vote, run Freedom Schools, and to build the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The project was sponsored by SNCC, CORE, COFO, and the NAACP. Approximately half of the white northerners who participated in Freedom Summer were Jewish.


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(Pronounced "snick") The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded at Shaw University in North Carolina in 1960. SNCC played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement, organizing and participating in many projects including Freedom Ride, Freedom Summer, and the March on Washington. SNCC focused on issues including desegregation of public facilities and voter registration using techniques of grassroots organizing and civil disobedience.

Atlanta Temple Bombing

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On October 12, 1958, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, GA, known simply as The Temple, was bombed. The bombing took place early in the morning and no one was injured. Claiming responsibility for the bombing, a voice identified as "General Gordon of the Confederate Underground" told a member of the press: "We bombed a temple in Atlanta. This is the last empty building in Atlanta we will bomb. All nightclubs refusing to fire their Negro employees will also be blown up. We are going to blow up all Communist organizations. Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens." The group is thought to have been targeting The Temple's Rabbi, who was a known supporter of civil rights. This bombing is referenced in Driving Miss Daisy.

Teacher resources

"An Orphan in History: Retrieving a Jewish Legacy"

Cowan, Paul. An Orphan in History: Retrieving a Jewish Legacy. (NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.,1982).

"Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers"

Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002).

"The Temple Bombing"

Green, Melissa Faye. The Temple Bombing. (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1996).

Counterblast: How the Atlanta Temple Bombing Strengthened the Civil Rights Cause

Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life

Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, http://www.isjl.org/history/archive/. Includes rich encylopedia entries on individual Jewish communities across the South.

How Jews Became White Folks

Brodkin, Karen. How Jews became white folks and what that says about race in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Copyright 1988.

Uprooting racism: How white people can work for racial justice

Kivel, Paul. Uprooting racism: How white people can work for racial justice. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2002.

Classified: How to stop hiding your privilege and use it for social change

Pittelman, Karen, and Resource Generation. Classified: How to stop hiding your privilege and use it for social change. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2005.

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. This New York-based organization has organized campaigns related to the rights of domestic workers and affordable housing, among other issues.



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Mayor William Hartsfield with Rabbi Jacob Rothschild after bombing of The Temple, Atlanta, Georgia, October 15, 1958.

Photo courtesy of The Temple (Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta).


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Power, Privilege, and Responsibility." (Viewed on February 28, 2024) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/civilrights/power-privilege-and-responsibility>.