By Bill Simons
“Go down, Moses, / Way down in Egypt land, / Tell old Pharaoh, / Let my people go.”
Those words sung by Black slaves in the American South possess a double meaning. It recounts the Exodus narrative of Hebrew enslavement and eventual emancipation in Egypt. The spiritual also expresses the powerful assertion of Black slaves, brought in chains from Africa to America, for freedom. The Egyptian pharoah and the American slave masters brutally subjugated both peoples. The Exodus, whether history or tradition, is central to Jewish consciousness.
Annually, Jews gather for the Passover seder and read from the haggadah the Exodus story of servitude and liberation. It is an obligation to do so and to view oneself as having personally participated in the events recounted in the haggadah. The Wicked Son separates himself from the Exodus by asking, “What is this service to you?” The haggadah counsels severe rebuke to the Wicked Son: “Since he excluded himself from the whole you should exclude him from the whole. Say to him, ‘Because of what God did for me’ – me and not you, if you had been there, you would not have been redeemed.”
Jewish consciousness of their own enslavement provided impetus for identification with the struggle of African Americans for freedom. Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the Thirteenth Amendment ended racial subordination. Sharecropping, poverty, intimidation, disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching followed slavery in the South. With Northern migration, Blacks experienced de facto segregation, labor exploitation, periodic race riots and unequal access to housing, medicine and education. Today, too many Blacks still encounter barriers to upward mobility, deprivation, racial separatism, limited access to basic services and discriminatory policing and incarceration practices.
Blacks and Jews have a long collaborative history in the campaign for equality. On the eve of the Civil War, Baltimore Rabbi David Einhorn, despite threats of mob violence, emphasized Black-Jewish solidarity: “The Jew, a descendant of the race that offers daily praises to God for deliverance out of the house of bondage in Egypt… [believes] all human beings are descended from the same human parents, can never approve of slavery.” In 1909, Henry Moskowitz, a Romanian Jewish immigrant, was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest and most influential Civil Rights organization.
During the Second Reconstruction (1955-65), the heyday of the modern Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided leadership, espousing nonviolent civil disobedience against oppression. Courageous Blacks faced beatings, high pressure water hoses, attack dogs, police, vigilante violence and death, as they protested, marched, conducted sit-ins, and organized against segregation and subjugation, ultimately touching the conscience of the nation. Extending from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to passage of the Voting Act Rights of 1965, the Second Reconstruction, animated by the valor of Black Civil Rights activists and their allies, dismantled much of Southern apartheid. More than a third of the white volunteers in the Civil Rights movement were Jewish.
Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, 20 and 24 years old respectively, were amongst the Jewish Civil Rights volunteers who came to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to promote Black voter registration and other Civil Rights initiatives. They did this despite white Southerners threatening, beating, bombing and murdering Civil Rights activists. Mississippi whites particularly resented outsiders coming to their state to support Black activism and monitored, spied upon and tracked the activities of Civil Rights workers. Goodman and Schwerner were teamed with James Chaney, a Black native of Mississippi. On June 21, 1964, in the environs of Philadelphia, MS, the trio were stopped and jailed, supposedly for speeding. After their release, police and Ku Klux Kan vigilantes followed their car and pulled it over again. The abductors took the three young men, two Jews and a Black, to an isolated area, castrated Chaney, shot them at close range and stuffed their bodies in an earthen dam. An extensive FBI investigation located the cadavers. National outrage contributed to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination in employment practices and segregation in public accommodations.
Dr. King’s response to racism, antisemitism and other forms of bigotry was inclusion. He planned three protest marches from Selma to Montgomery, AL, in 1965 to highlight the use of poll taxes and rigged literacy tests to suppress Black voting. Police batons and tear gas violently turned back the first march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The second march was abridged. For the third march, Dr. King called upon religious leaders of all faiths to join him for the four-day, 54-mile trudge from Selma to Montgomery in late March. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, carrying a Torah scroll, was prominent in the front line of the march. By August 1965, federal voting rights legislation was enacted.
Over the past generation, the alliance between Blacks and Jews has frayed. Despite efforts at healing, conflict between Blacks and Chasidim in Crown Heights left scars. Although many American Jews are critical of the policies of the current Israeli government, Black criticism of the moral legitimacy of Israel has grown, fostered by the inability of Israelis and Palestinians to find mutual security and justice. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement opens another fault line. Of late, some prominent Black celebrities – amongst them Kyrie Irving, comedian David Chappelle and rapper/entrepreneur Ye (Kanye West) – have stood accused of antisemitic remarks.
Recently, however, there have been positive signs. From the former Confederacy, two liberal, pro-Civil Rights senators, one Black, Raphael Warnock, the other Jewish, Jon Ossoff, represent Georgia.
On January 13 of this year, Boston dedicated a massive bronze sculpture, “The Embrace,” on the Commons, evoking the Civil Rights partnership between Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Joining in the dedication of the monument, Boston Jews, carrying a Torah, marched in procession from Central Reform Temple to the Commons. Rabbi Michael Shire stated, “We thought this would be a wonderful moment to rekindle the alliance between the African American Civil Rights community and the Jewish community.”
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta, where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.