Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Real History: The Jewish Community in Selma Alabama Reflects on the Civil Rights Movement



Inspired by recent events, this week I am going to do a few posts on the real faces and real stories of the Civil Rights Movement years.

Herman Cain's defense of his craven non-participation during the height of the 1960s resistance to Jim Crow is a great entry point for reflecting on the fact that history is complex and not the stuff of 5th grade history class. Consider the historic lies that Dr. King was popular, that Civil Rights for black folks were embraced by most whites, and that all African Americans were noble warriors in a grand struggle of liberation.

Most people, on both sides of the colorline, were bystanders who wanted to stay out of the way of history.

This interview with some members of the Jewish community in Selma, Alabama brings to the forefront a number of issues. First, it points out how in-between peoples such as Jews who were still earning their whiteness in the 1950s and 1960s had to make a hard choice.

Would they be heroic? Would they be moral cowards?

Two, it challenges a uniform story about Jews and Black folks as "natural allies" (a premise I have always found problematic). And perhaps most provocatively, the Jews of Selma apparently forgot the lessons of shared historical suffering and empathy: their immediate financial, reputational, and personal safety trumped any sense of linked fate with black folks, a people like them who had also been oppressed.

True, there were heroes and there were villains in the Civil Rights moment and the long Black Freedom Struggle. But they were outliers. Most folks were just on cruise control as the world was changing around them.

None too different than today it would seem...

10 comments:

Thrasher said...

CD,

I am not surprised at all by the cowardice of white jewish people nor for that matter by the cowardice of many others ..Professor Harris was correct in her reaction to Cain's role or lack of role in the movement what would we have done??

I am curious why you selected jews to write about and not asian-americans, hispanic americans, native americans as you set out to tell this tale..

I have on this site and in other venues discussed my disappointment with white jewish people in a number of venues from America to South Africa and on personal grounds where many white jews have called me a nigger in yiddish for being a Black Activist in the Detroit Area..

So as I noted I am not surprised at all about the evil that men do..

g_whiz said...

I think this is a brilliant post and a very great idea going forward.

So much of our culture, whether it comes to ethnicity and race or social change...region plays a huge, perhaps larger than race, impact on what perspective a particular person takes. Does it surprise me that the people interviewed who identify as Jewish harbored the animus and bigotry of the larger southern culture at the time? No. Does it disappoint me? A very great deal.

That said, I love that the interviewer is pressing these questions, and enjoyed this quite a bit. Kudos.

Daniel Goldberg said...

I'm not all that surprised by the cowardice of any people, Jewish or not. Sometimes as a white Jewish man, I wonder why I spend so much time thinking about social injustices, racism, classism, sexism, and inequities. This is my job, but it is much more than my job, as the material I research and write about moves me literally on a daily basis, and also because I have done quite a bit of public policy work with community advocates.

I don't mean this in a crocodilian sense, but the stuff I read and write about, the people I learn from and listen to, sometimes reduce me to tears.

And then I wonder why I, a white man, feel this stuff so intensely. It very likely has something to do with my own sense of what it means to be Jewish. But then I come to my senses and think that there is nothing special -- AT ALL -- about me. It's not what is going on with me -- it is what is going on with everyone else (why aren't the other white men, Jewish or not, as furious and horrified?)

One of the profound lessons of Asch-Milgram is the astonishing human capacity for groupthink and obedience to perceived authority. This is a human capacity -- it is not as if Jews or African-Americans or any other social group can somehow claim the privilege of being immune to the phenomenon. There but for the grace go we, and that is about as important a social lesson as there is, IMO. Also helps keep me as humble and as aware of my own fallibilism as I ought to be.

(CDV, I have not forgotten about the health inequalities stuff -- this is a very busy time of year for me, but I promise it will come).

Thrasher said...

Daniel,

Ditto...With regret I wish during my younger years I would have encounter more white jewish souls like you but I did not...RACE from my subjective lens trumps everything in America and it impacted the majority of my interactions with jews who had no problem reminding me and my parents often they were white..

It is good for my maturation to encounter since those days many white jewish people who did not wear the badge of 'whiteness'...

I have been enriched by my latter life experiences with many white jewish people I hope one day the sting and bitterness will leave me..I pray it does..

chaunceydevega said...

@Gwhiz. Always trying to share. I came upon a series of these oral histories that I want to share. I am also always surprised by the uniformity of belief that Dr. King was a popular leader. He wasn't. Sounds harsh, but that is part of his greatness to me.

@Dan. You know my position on the complexities of jewishness, blackness, and race. We want simple stories when people are anything but. And be sure to do right by yourself, as your type of work can bring folks down. What is that anecdote about professionals who study genocide and eliminationism? It is something ridiculous.

@Thrasher. What great honesty and self-reflection. Thank you for being real on that point.

Chris Sharp said...

CD I think you are definitely onto something when you say that "Jews of Selma apparently forgot the lessons of shared historical suffering and empathy..."

I have been giving alot of thought lately to the question of how someone "forgets" these things and how those lessons can be taught to the unenlightend who never remembered them in the first place.

I once wrote a review of a book in college whose title I cannot remember, but it was about a former Klansman who spent his entire life hating blacks, until one day he had an epiphany that allowed him to finally emphathize (not sympathize, there is a big difference) with them instead of psychologicaly distancing himself from them in order to make himself feel superior. Once that happened, he had the clarity of thought to reject everything that he had previosuly believed about white supremacy. Because he was finally able to empathize, he could see the obvious "shared historical suffering" between black folks and poor Southern whites like himself, and it became impossible for him to hate the other any longer.

I'm not exactly sure where I am going with all of this, but I think trying to build empathy in people is an important part of our struggle, and one that sometimes gets overlooked in the din of battle because it sounds too simple to be effective. Of course, there will always be some people that cannot be so moved, but I believe most people are naturally empathetic; they just need to be reminded of it from time to time. The question then becomes how can we prevail upon peoples' natural empathy when the message from the other side is so skillfully aimed at destroying it and driving a wedge between people that have more in common than they have differences.

Esho Woman said...

If folks watched Driving Miss Daisy with a critical eye, this would be quite evident.

Oh Crap said...

Two, it challenges a uniform story about Jews and Black folks as "natural allies" (a premise I have always found problematic). And perhaps most provocatively, the Jews of Selma apparently forgot the lessons of shared historical suffering and empathy: their immediate financial, reputational, and personal safety trumped any sense of linked fate with black folks, a people like them who had also been oppressed.


Pfft, broadly speaking Blacks and Jews in America do have similar enemies, such as the klan, neo-nazis, and other garden variety eliminationists.

There are also deeply divergent worldviews within each community. So I tired of this old mythology about being "natural" allies, long ago.

I find it interesting that the JTA even copped to acknowledging what I'd thought was a well-known story about "Selma's Jews, complete with that other mythology about "shop owners", as if every Jew in Selma was a "shop owner".

Who buys this old tall tale?

Oh Crap said...

broadly speaking Blacks and Jews in America do have similar enemies, such as the klan, neo-nazis, and other garden variety eliminationists.

Latest case in point, Oregon:

Accused killers Holly Grigsby and David Pedersen share white-supremacist philosophy

It's still very much an issue.

chaunceydevega said...

@Ohcrap. Every jewish person everywhere is a shop owner. You didn't get the memo?