Reflections on “Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights”
In 1992, the Journal of American History published an article by University of Cambridge historian Tony Badger titled “Confessions of a British Americanist.” Badger reflected on an important methodological conundrum that confronts overseas historians of the United States: is their outsider status an asset or a hindrance to their scholarship? For some Americanists based outside the United States, the answer was that it could be a virtue since they bring a dispassionate eye to their subject that affords new analytical perspectives. Yet other foreign scholars, including Badger himself, took the opposing view. These historians believed that for their scholarship to be taken seriously in the United States they must go native, making themselves indistinguishable from home-grown academics. This approach necessitated extended travel to and within the United States to allow their immersion in archival sources. The result, they hoped, would be research that American readers would appreciate on its own terms rather than prejudging on the basis of the author’s national origin.1
I had reason to reflect on these issues when I arrived at the University of Cambridge in October 1992 to research a doctoral thesis under the supervision of Professor Badger. His article was one of the earliest pieces I read. I had not in all honesty pondered the dilemmas of being a British Americanist when embarking on my research. To some extent this owed to my being unable to conceive of a readership that consisted of more than my supervisor and examiners. It was not clear to me at the outset of my research that I wanted to pursue an academic career so the notion of publishing a revised version of the thesis in book form did not occur to me. My only ambition was naively to recreate the events I described in something approximating their historical reality. (Unsophisticated as I was, even I balked at the idea of establishing “the truth.”) Even when I did start amending the thesis for publication, my main anxiety about not being American was learning how to spell (or, as some on this side of the Atlantic would mischievously assert, misspell) and punctuate differently. Although it is sometimes claimed that British scholars are attracted to American history because it allows them to study an experience different from their own without having to learn another language, experience has sometimes taught me otherwise.
The book based on my thesis, Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights (University of Georgia Press, 2001), demonstrates both the strengths and the shortcomings of foreign scholarship on American history. Although I do not believe it is possible to be entirely objective, my status as a white English Gentile provided me with a relatively impartial standpoint. I had no interest in acting as an apologist for southern Jews but sought to explain the broader societal forces that shaped their action or, as was often the case, inaction during the civil rights struggle. Nor did the contemporary tensions between the Jewish and African American communities have any influence on my reading of their historical relationship. Yet to some critics this detachment also rendered me unable or unwilling to make a tougher moral judgment of the historical actors I studied. As one reviewer of the manuscript advised, what it needed was “more piss and vinegar.”
What some reviewers saw as fence straddling was to me sympathy for human frailty. The central argument of Fight Against Fear is that a history of anti-Semitic persecution around the world sensitized many southern Jews to the plight of African Americans oppressed by Jim Crow. In the oppressive political climate of the South, it was nonetheless difficult for them to express public support for desegregation. Southern white opposition to civil rights reform, what became known as “massive resistance,” was a combustible compound of elements that included racism, violence, patriarchy, and a substantial measure of anti-Semitism. Confronted by the threat of physical reprisal, social ostracism, and economic boycott of their businesses, most Jews kept their heads below the parapet during the civil rights conflict. A few critics believed I should have been bolder in condemning Jews for not being brave enough to answer the call of their consciences. By contrast, I interpreted the paralysis of such men and women as all too understandable.
Other reviewers challenged my interpretation with an alternate thesis that the failure of Jews to support black civil rights stemmed from their acculturation into white southern society. Prejudice, they argued, not fear motivated their conduct. The book does in fact embrace this interpretation. It included a controversial chapter on Jews who were in the front ranks of massive resistance including states’ rights legal strategist Charles Bloch, South Carolina politician Solomon Blatt, and Sol Tepper, one of the possemen who brutally assaulted civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Had I known more about him at the time, I would have added another profile to this rogues’ gallery, that of lawyer Will Gerber, a member of Boss Crump’s Memphis political machine who represented school boards resisting the admission of African American students.
These Jewish segregationists were nonetheless exceptional personalities. Although Jews joined segregationist organizations such as the Citizens’ Council, it was more often under duress. While historians such as David Chappell and Jane Dailey have debated the extent to which southern Christians drew on biblical doctrine to support segregation, I uncovered no evidence of rabbis who used their pulpits to propagate racist doctrine or of laypersons who espoused a Jewish equivalent of the “segregationist folk theology” described by Paul Harvey.2
Another way to approach this debate might be to ask a counterfactual question. To what extent would Jews have taken an initiative in encouraging civil rights reform if less constrained by political circumstances? Answering this question would allow us to determine whether southern Jews were ideologically more committed to segregation or integration. The reality, however, is that we will never know. What is nonetheless evident is that in those communities where white racial attitudes were not monolithic, Jews often tended toward moderate or progressive opinion. Moreover, in the most reactionary political cities there were Jews prepared to take serious personal risks to support reform, most conspicuously rabbis such as Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, Mississippi, whose home and synagogue were bombed by Klansmen. Jewish women also made an important contribution to facilitating school desegregation through their active involvement in numerous community organizations.
One of the harshest critics I have always contended with is myself. Although none of the reviews of the book raised the issue, in retrospect I wonder whether Fight Against Fear falls into the trap of constructing a simplistic dichotomy between the conservative South and the progressive North. One of the book’s chapters focuses on the clash between southern Jews and their liberal coreligionists who travelled below the Mason-Dixon line to participate in civil rights demonstrations and voter registration drives. Some southern Jews opposed the incursion of these outsiders into their communities on ideological grounds. Others feared more practically that their presence would provide political ammunition to anti-Semites within the ranks of massive resistance, who accused all Jews of fomenting racial agitation. In either case, southern Jews often tried to dissuade northern activists from intervening in local conflicts; failing that, they publicly dissociated from them. What I did not consider was the extent to which the northern activists commanded the support of their own congregations back home. Although their contested presence in Dixie raised the issue of sectional divisions between Jews, it remains uncertain whether the liberal racial politics of the campaigners were representative even of their fellow northerners. Northern Jews performed an important role at the organizational level in promoting civil rights but further research is needed to dig to the grassroots to determine the depth and breadth of community support for racial reform.
Fight Against Fear covers a regionwide canvas that contains many points of detail but still necessarily relies on broad brushstrokes. Although I travelled to more than twenty archives in ten different states (as someone who has never learned to drive, the vagaries of American public transport was one of my severest culture shocks), there are large areas of the South, especially the border-states, which receive little or no mention. Other scholars have filled in some of these lacunae, most notably Raymond Mohl, Leonard Rogoff, and Bryan Stone, who have respectively produced studies of Miami, North Carolina and Texas.3
One development that has not occurred during the last decade is the integration of the southern Jewish experience into the narrative of the civil rights movement. The desegregation crisis unleashed a torrent of prejudice against Jews who were accused of secretly financing and strategizing civil rights activism. A series of terrorist attacks on Jewish institutions, culminating with the dynamiting of the Atlanta Reform Temple, influenced passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which, among other provisions, authorized federal investigation of white supremacist bombings. These events may be peripheral to the black freedom struggle, but their omission from much of the new scholarship on white resistance to civil rights reform is disappointing. With the exception most notably of Karen S. Anderson’s superb study of the Little Rock school crisis, the history of southern Jews remains below the radars of most civil rights historians.4 I tried to address this issue in a sequel of sorts to Fight Against Fear. Rabble Rousers: The American Far Right in the Civil Rights Era (2010) focuses on militant segregationists who claimed the African American freedom struggle was a conspiracy masterminded by communist Jews to destroy the social fabric of the United States.5
What also still needs to be done is for someone to produce a comparative analysis of religious minorities’ response to the civil rights movement that would allow us to see what, if anything, was exceptional about southern Jews. We now have important works on other non-Protestant groups including Andrew Moore’s study of Catholics, The South’s Tolerable Alien (2007), that demonstrate points of convergence with and divergence from the southern Jewish experience.6 I confess, however, that I look forward to one day reading rather than writing such a multi-faith study of religion and race. Now that I myself am a supervisor of doctoral students, what advice would I offer to an enthusiastic postgraduate who wanted to undertake a project of this kind, other than honoring academic tradition by trying to dissuade them from being too ambitious? In response to the issues raised by my own supervisor twenty years ago, I would encourage a student to build their analysis on a strong empirical foundation and hope that in rooting through the archives their foreign identity would lead them to interrogate the material in new and unusual ways.
Tony Badger, “Confessions of a British Americanist,” Journal of American History 79 (Sept. 1992): 515–23. ↩
Jane Dailey, “Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred After Brown,” Journal of American History 91 (June 2004): 119–44; David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). ↩
Raymond A. Mohl with Matilda “Bobbi” Graff and Shirley M. Zoloth, South of the South: Jewish Activists and the Civil Rights Movement in Miami, 1945–1960 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004); Leonard Rogoff, Homelands: Southern Jewish Identity in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001); Bryan Edward Stone, The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010). Rogoff and Stone’s books are not restricted to, but still contain rich analysis of, civil rights issues. ↩
Karen S. Anderson, Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). ↩
Clive Webb, Rabble Rousers: The American Far Right in the Civil Rights Era (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). ↩
Andrew S. Moore. The South’s Tolerable Alien: Roman Catholics in Alabama and Georgia, 1945–1970 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007). ↩