Religious faith and religious leaders played a central role in the American Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s, civil rights leadership and activism shifted from northern elite organizations focusing on legislative change (such as the NAACP) to southern communities focusing on direct action such as the Montgomery bus boycott, in which African American churches provided the meeting space, training ground, and religious inspiration. Many southern civil rights leaders came from a strong faith background and drew on religious values that asserted the equality and value of all people. In 1957, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. – in an effort to sustain the momentum of the Montgomery movement – brought together more than 100 African American ministers to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King served as the first president.
The student arm of the movement, which took on a leadership role in the 1960s with the sit-ins and the founding of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), was also informed by religious values and led by seminary students, such as John Lewis, who identified their Christian conscience as their motivation to activism and who found great strength in their faith when they faced fear, danger, and violence. Integrating religious ideals of love, faith, non-violence, forgiveness, and brotherhood, Southern civil rights activists worked toward creating what King called the "beloved community."
The black church served as the center for the Civil Rights Movement in the South in both logistical and symbolic ways. It offered a central meeting place, a community bulletin board, and a cadre of respected community leaders. It also served as a model of the kind of independence that African Americans sought, for the black church existed (for the most part) beyond the grasp of the white power structure. In addition, biblical stories provided symbols and metaphors for the freedom struggle, and traditional hymns and gospel songs were easily adapted into the "Freedom Songs" that provided the Movement with great spiritual energy.
Though the language and ideals of the Civil Rights Movement drew primarily from Christianity, there was much in it that appealed to people of other faiths and backgrounds. Both the idea that God was on the side of oppressed people and the explicit linking of civil rights activism to the prophetic tradition resonated with Jews. For some Jews, the religious language of the Civil Rights Movement connected directly to their experience of Judaism; for others, who did not identify as religious, the Civil Rights Movement became a religion of its own.
Liberal institutions within the organized Jewish community also played explicit roles in the Civil Rights Movement. Both the Reform Movement and the Conservative Movement invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at their national meetings. The Reform Movement had publicly supported civil rights since the beginning of the 20th century, first coming out against lynching in 1899 and passing resolutions throughout the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond) asserting their commitment to civil rights and racial justice. Prominent rabbis of both movements were public civil rights activists, speaking out to their congregations, marching with King, and getting arrested at demonstrations (sometimes to the disapproval of their congregants and/or denominational leadership). Among the most famous was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Conservative Movement, whose photo marching arm in arm with King in Selma in 1965 has become an iconic image of Jewish civil rights activism, and whose description of that march as "praying with my legs" is often quoted by Jewish activists. (For information about the Jewish presence at the March on Washington, see the introductory essay for that lesson.)
Civil Rights activism was often more complicated for rabbis in the South than for their northern counterparts. Southern rabbis generally supported racial equality in principle, but were concerned about the practical implications of taking a public stand against segregation and for civil rights. A rabbi's public support of civil rights strengthened the segregationists' claim that Jews threatened the southern way of life, and could put the Jewish community in economic and physical danger (in several communities, Jewish businesses were boycotted and synagogues were bombed). The social position of Jews in the south was precarious – Jews were often accepted as part of the social fabric, and in many cities were prominent business people who often ran local stores, but they were also seen as different from other whites and somewhat suspect. 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.
Southern rabbis did not often engage in mass civil rights protest, but they did educate their communities and quietly encourage them to consider their role in promoting tolerance and equality. Some took individual action, and as a result faced violent retaliation as well as social isolation. Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, MS, for example, survived the bombing of his synagogue and his home, as well as an attempt at his removal by some of his own congregants. Many congregations tried to prevent rabbis from taking public stances on civil rights issues; the synagogue in Hattiesburg forced out two rabbis within two years. Other rabbis were committed to aligning with the positions of their congregants and preserving their safety. In speaking about other southern rabbis who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Moses Landau of Cleveland, Mississippi said, "It is your privilege [as a rabbi] to be a martyr…There are dozens of vacant pulpits. You can pick yourself up within 24 hours and leave. Can you say the same of the about 1000 Jewish families in the state? I am paid by my Congregation, and as long as I eat their bread I shall not do anything that might harm any member of my Congregation without their consent." (Quotation from interview conducted by Allen Krause, "The Southern Rabbi and Civil Rights," unpublished paper, 1967, Civil Rights, Box no. 1747, American Jewish Archives, p. 292.)
Southern rabbis who did participate found it easier to get involved in civil rights activism when joined by Christian clergy in their community, as this made their own activism less noticeable and less likely to attract anti-Semitic response.
Many southern rabbis did not welcome the civil rights activism of their fellow rabbis in the North and they resented northern self-righteousness around civil rights issues. They saw these rabbis as having the luxury of taking political stands that would not impact their own lives or their congregations. Those who came south to protest would soon go back to their lives in the North, while their co-religionists in the south would bear the brunt of the anti-Semitic sentiments they had provoked. Southern rabbis encouraged their northern counterparts to speak from their own pulpits rather than get involved in communities that were not their own, where they didn't know the subtleties and could harm the position of other Jews.
The case of Rabbi Milton Grafman of Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El illustrates the challenges southern rabbis faced and their ambivalence about how to relate to the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s, Grafman upheld a position of neutrality, prioritizing the safety of the Jewish community above all else and arguing that segregation was a "Christian problem" between whites and blacks. In April 1963, when King and the SCLC began a direct action campaign against Birmingham businesses, Grafman was one of eight local clergy who wrote a public statement criticizing King for the timing of the demonstrations, which came just as white moderates had been working on a referendum election that would improve race relations. These moderates felt that local citizens could best solve their own problems, and that the SCLC should not get involved before the newly elected leadership had a chance to make changes. King responded from prison in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail," condemning these white liberals as too cautious and insufficiently responsive to black suffering; in a comment that seemed to target Grafman explicitly, King said that if he had lived in Hitler's Germany he would have put himself at risk to help Jews.
Grafman's reputation suffered as a result of this incident, and many civil rights supporters viewed him as a coward and a racist. However, this perspective does not accurately capture Grafman's role. In 1963, Grafman also signed a letter written by other white clergy protesting Governor Wallace's defense of segregation. After the April demonstrations ended, Grafman played a role in helping to ease the transition to integration in Birmingham. And only a few months later, in September 1963, he delivered a heated Rosh Hashanah sermon to his own congregation, condemning them all for not doing more to fight the evils of racism in their community.
Though quick to be judged, rabbis during the Civil Rights Movement were often in a difficult position of competing priorities and conflicting responsibilities. As public figures with influence over their congregants and a pulpit from which to preach, clergy are often expected to be social justice leaders; as spiritual leaders who help connect their communities to God, they are often held to a higher moral standard. Yet what they consider to be their ultimate moral responsibility – whether it is to God, to the security of their congregants, to justice in the larger community – may shift over time and in relationship to their specific congregations and communities.