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Footprints: The Black-Jewish Connection

January 21, 2011

Jewish Currents Has Always Cultivated Solidarity between Blacks and Jews. Is that Bond Still Vital and Real?

by Lawrence Bush This article is one of a series reflecting on the history of Jewish Currents on the occasion of our 65th anniversary. You can find the other entries here. Jewish Life 1957JEWISH CURRENTS HAS ALWAYS capitalized “Black” in reference to African-Americans. When I came to the magazine as assistant editor in 1978, this typographical quirk was explained to me as more than a mark of respect: It testified to the status of African-Americans as an “oppressed national minority,” a status that the Communist Party in the 1930s had extended into a proposal for a post-revolutionary, five-state African-American “territory” in the Black Belt of the South that would resemble Birobidzhan, the “Jewish Autonomous Region” of the USSR. This “Black Belt Thesis” may sound far-fetched today, but it accurately reflected the concentration and severe oppression of Blacks in the lynching-crazed, sharecropping South of the 1930s. I was reminded of this reality when I recently read not only part of JC’s back catalogue of articles about African-American struggles, but Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (Random House, 2010), an authoritative yet intimate new study of the seven-decade migration of some six million Blacks from the former slave states to the free states beginning at the turn of the 20th century. “Across the South,” Wilkerson notes, “someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929.” As Jim Crow became the legal and cultural backbone of the South, these were “the facts of [Black] lives... carried out with soul-killing efficiency...” The year of our magazine’s birth, 1946, was hardly different, until one particular lynching in Georgia sparked national outrage. The Moore’s Ford Bridge incident involved a murderous mob attack on two Black couples, including a pregnant woman and a recently returned World War II veteran. The FBI investigated the case but could not break through the wall of silence that protected Southern racists; President Truman then pushed for lynching to be made a federal crime but was blocked by Southern Democrats. Nevertheless, these long overdue federal responses helped force lynching into the closet, making it more often a private hate crime than a public spectacle. Outside the African-American community, opposition to lynching, Jim Crow, and racist economic exploitation was most vocally expressed in the Communist movement — and so the very first 
issue of Jewish Life (November, 1946), the predecessor to Jewish Currents, included a feature by Samuel Barron on “The Policy of Discrimination in America.” “The Negro people,” wrote Barron, “are bearing the brunt of the repressive policy of American reaction. Theirs is a violent and terrible experience.” He called for “militant and mass support of the American people as a whole for the Negro people in their struggle for freedom and equality,” since “other minorities... need only look at the fate of the Negro people to see their own future clearly delineated.” For Jewish Life’s editors, anti-racist activism was a key part of the post-war struggle against capitalism and what they saw as incipient American fascism. They recognized, however, that racism was not only “institutional” but also personal — as noted in a June, 1950 Jewish Life article, “The Menace of White Chauvinism,” by Carl Vedro (Leo Krassen), chair of the Communist Party of Brooklyn:
Does it not stand to reason that we Jews... should be doubly conscious and alert to all manifestations of oppression? Yet it is a fact that there are many among us who fall prey to this deadly poison and become the bearers of white chauvinism.... [W]ithin the Jewish community... there exists a slave market for domestic workers. Negro women, because they desperately need to supplement the family income, are forced to work under conditions that are economically and physically degrading.... Or take the case of Sea Gate [Brooklyn], where Negroes are searched on city buses as they enter or leave that ‘private’ community. In the slave market and Sea Gate we find many Jews falling victim to Wall Street’s program of oppression of the Negro people.
Vedro’s article concluded on a prideful note about “a great intense ideological discussion on white chauvinism” that was taking place “within our Party in a public, merciless, critical and self-critical manner.” By contrast, the well-known activist Dorothy Healey described this same “white chauvinism campaign” of 1949-1953 (in Dorothy Healey Remembers, 1990) as “a ritual act of self-purification that did nothing to strengthen the party in its fight against racism and was manipulated by some Communist leaders for ends which had nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of the whole campaign.... In Los Angeles alone we must have expelled two hundred people 
on charges of white chauvinism, usually on the most trivial of pretexts.” FOR MY PARENTS, the white chauvinism campaign had a profound impact, as they and several other white Communist couples moved into St. Albans, Queens in and around 1951, the year of my birth, to take a stand against “white flight,” which was turning the neighborhood into an all-African-American zone. The situation there was typical of the U.S. at large: As cities swelled with Black migrants from the segregated South, Northern whites became hell-bent on preserving their own forms of segregation. Isabel Wilkerson reports in her book, for example, on white rioting in Chicago in July, 1951, sparked by the attempt of a Black family to move into the suburb of Cicero. Already in Chicago there had been “fifty-eight bombings of houses that blacks moved into or were about to move into between 1917 and 1921 alone,” Wilkerson observes, “bombings having become one of the preferred methods of intimidation in the North.” In Cicero, Governor Adlai Stevenson had to call in the National Guard to quell the riots. In Cleveland, meanwhile, according to A. Strauss in the October, 1953 issue of Jewish Life (“Fighting Jim Crow in Cleveland”), the sale of a house by “a Jewish citizen, Richard G. Lepon... to a Negro, Wendell Stewart” (described by Strauss as “a well-known Negro intellectual, whose family for generations has contained fighters for Negro rights”), sparked “a lynch agitation throughout the neighborhood.” “During the last eight years,” Strauss observed, “80,000 new homes were built in Greater Cleveland. Of this total, only 200 homes were occupied by Negro families.” Yes, there had been “important acts of solidarity on the part of some Jewish leaders,” but “much to our shame, [also] disgraceful racism among some Jews...” Clearly, my parents were swimming against the tide in their effort to reverse “white flight” in St. Albans! However, while it meant an opportunity for home ownership that never came their way again, it also meant adjusting to a minority racial status with which my parents never became comfortable. Before I was even ready for kindergarten they had put the house on the market, prompted by my brother’s first-grade class photo, in which his and the teacher’s were the only white faces. We landed next in Forest Hills, a mostly Jewish neighborhood in which the only Black kids in my school were from a local orphanage. A lifelong contradiction was thus set in motion between my anti-racist politics and my deep love for African-American music and culture, on the one hand, and my lack of personal friendship and intimacy with Black peers, on the other. On a theoretical plane, I would come to view Black liberation as the pivotal issue in the transformation of America, and African-American music as our country’s most vibrant gift to the world, while on the street, I would experience Black people primarily as poor, tough, and “unfortunate” — which caused me to chastise myself frequently about the “racist” content of my own perceptions. There was the stoical Hank Aaron, subjected to death threats as he pursued and finally overtook Babe Ruth’s lifetime home-run record — and there was the angry Black girl who wordlessly slugged me in the chest at the Polo Grounds, purely at random, for no other reason than my being white, young, and cheerful. There was Ralph Bunche, the United Nations official who won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Israeli-Arab armistice in 1948 — and there were Black teens who stole my bicycle out from under me as I was exploring the World’s Fair construction site (the former site of the United Nations) near my home. There was Martin Luther King, Jr., who inspired people to endure hatred and brutality non-violently — and there were young Black men who threatened me with violence repeatedly over the years, as muggers and as burglars, with knives and guns and crowbars... It’s class, not race, I would remind myself, class, not race... THE EDITORS of Jewish Life and JC certainly believed that analysis, as they diligently covered African-America struggles from a class-conscious perspective and urged readers to defy the prevailing culture of segregation and indifference within their personal lives. A 28-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. graced the cover of the June, 1957 issue, in which Robert Rolfe described the “Washington Pilgrimage,” a march to mark the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. From the podium, Dr. King had identified “a dire need today for a liberalism... thoroughly committed to the idea of racial justice.” But “as you look around you at the twenty-five thousand” marchers, Rolfe wrote,
you see, indeed, only a scattering of white faces — not more than one in twenty, you estimate. And this is one of the facts that makes you, as a white man and as a Jew, a little sad: that so few of your own have come forward on this day... to stand... in the front ranks of this great struggle for the Negro freedom that... will determine the future of these United States and all its citizens.
In the same edition of the magazine, James Dolsen, a leftwing journalist, wrote about Concord Park, a racially integrated housing project in Philadelphia that was “largely the creation of one man, Morris Milgram,” who “conceived it as his mission to prove the possibility and practicality of developing integrated housing as a profitable field of private capital investment.” Dolsen concluded this story of committed activism with an inspiring statement from Judge William H. Hastie, an African-American on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals:
A man must live his beliefs or he cannot live with himself.... In the dynamics of society, Negrophobia grows and flourishes as white persons are deprived of normal, neighborly contacts with Negroes... segregated living makes for an unhealthy society.
MY FAMILY TRIED again to ‘live our beliefs’ by moving in 1965 to Rochdale Village, a cooperative housing development populated mostly by working-class whites, including many Jews, in the middle of South Jamaica, one of the heartland neighborhoods of Black New York. I was soon enrolled as a tenth grader in a brand new, racially integrated high school. That was a high-tide year for Black-Jewish solidarity. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been murdered in Mississippi, which brought Jewish investment in the civil rights struggle way beyond dollars. Easily a third of the two hundred-plus white Freedom Riders who had faced beatings, bombings and imprisonment with their Black comrades in the South had also been Jews. Rabbis were being arrested left and right in solidarity with the civil rights movement. “Those rabbis better not lead these niggers in any march or they’ll get their tails squirted like everybody else,” said Commissioner Bull Connor of Birmingham, Alabama, one of the true villains of the white supremacist movement, as quoted in the July-August, 1963 issue of Jewish Currents (“Birmingham Diary,” by David Matis). “I hear they only gave the niggers $1,500 for the cause. Now, ain’t that just like those cheap Jews?” Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching a politics of love and integration, which helped “many of our white brothers,” as he expressed it in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, to “come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny... that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” Nevertheless, the Queens neighborhoods from which students at my high school came were definitely not integrated, so while I had Black classmates and acquaintances at school, I had virtually no Black friends at home. In fact, when Black kids appeared on the basketball courts of Rochdale Village, it was usually to extort money from the white kids. One bully did this so regularly that I had him arrested. “Why didn’t you guys just kick his ass?” the detective asked me in a low voice as we sat around the precinct. “It was all of you against one of him.” This got me worried that perhaps a cop would be kicking the guy’s ass in some back room. I felt shame about my unwillingness to fight, and shame for having handed over a young Black man to “the system.” To this day, I remember his name and exactly what he looked like. I WAS A RACIST — and how could I not be, given the living history of my country? I perceived Black people first by their skin color, second by the level of threat they posed to me (depending on gender, age, and class, in that order), and third, if I ever got there, as individuals. In my more sympathetic states of mind, I would too often invest each Black person with the entire heroic, suffering drama of Afro-America: the centuries of slavery and oppression, the sexual exploitation, the stereotyping, the lynchings, the police brutality, the poverty, the subservient employment, the resistance, the noble struggle — and even as I aspired to color-blindness, I knew that to be a pretense, for Black people were, by and large, different from most of the people who formed my world. Different body language, different accents and speaking styles, different parenting styles, different food preferences, different clothes, different vocations, different relationships to the majority culture — different, just like Jews used to be! In fact, for some young, activist Jews, that “difference” offered inspiration and a sense of imperative for us to reclaim and rebuild our Jewish ethnic identity during this period of the late 1960s. Jewish Currents editor Morris U. Schappes anticipated this in the magazine’s July-August, 1965 issue (“Jewish Young Freedom Fighters and the Role of the Jewish Community”) when he wrote of a “Negro student” who “once came to me in a class with an odd kind of complaint. He said to me, ‘Mr. Schappes... I have a great number of Jewish friends who are very active in the civil rights struggle. I find that they know more about Negro history than I do. But when I ask them a simple question about Jewish history or Jewish affairs, they don’t know the answer.... I’m beginning to get suspicious of them. What are they up to? Are they missionaries? Are they in this for some kind of ulterior purpose?’ ” By then, the Black Power movement was growing in influence and separatists were overtaking integrationists as Black leaders. Nevertheless, Schappes continued to offer a thoughtful, empathetic perspective while urging Jews not to flee the Black-Jewish alliance. Jewish organizations, he wrote in January, 1967 (“Black Power and the Jews”), should “develop an educational campaign to reach their entire memberships with the full, bitter truth about the present situation of the Negro people, and with an understanding of their justified [militancy]”:
I say that Black Power is no more anti-white than Zionism, or Jewishness, or Judaism, is anti-Gentile.... Black Power has been raised as a way of combating self-hate with self-respect... And have not the Jews... also had to combat Jewish self-hate and self-depreciation...? Should not Jewish experience therefore help them understand this aspect of the Black Power slogan, even in some of its exaggerations?
Schappes applied similar empathy and logic to the emergent militancy (and fervid anti-Zionism) of the Black Panthers in the early 1970s, to the heated anti-Semitism of Minister Louis Farrakhan in the 1980s, to the Reverend Jesse Jackson “Hymietown” remark in 1984, and to exaggerated pan-Africanist claims about Jews and the slave-trade in subsequent years. While many in the Jewish community were using instances of Black anti-Semitism and militancy as excuses to withdraw their solidarity — and while neoconservative Jews, especially within the Anti-Defamation League, were campaigning vociferously against affirmative action — JC consistently proclaimed the ongoing interdependence of Blacks and Jews and emphasized the benefits to American society as a whole generated by our solidarity. A self-taught historian, Schappes also exposed readers to African-American history and culture, especially during Black History Month. Outbursts of anti-Semitism in the Black community were put in their proper context: “Farrakhan’s fierceness,” said an editorial in the November, 1985 issue (“How to Fight Farrakhan”), “is the fierceness of the impotent, expressing at best the rage and frustration of the oppressed Black minority... But they can get no nourishment from misdirected hate...” In the final analysis, Schappes believed (as he expressed it in his “Editor’s Diary” of June, 1986) that “anti-Semitism among Blacks was usually the result of their confusion of class and race in their perception of Jews (attributing an ethnic character to a class phenomenon, as when a Jewish employer is fought for being Jewish rather than as an employer).” Throughout Schappes’ decades as editor, JC remained fiercely attached to these solidarity politics. In his September, 1982 memoir, “Personal and Political: Prison Recollections”, he revealed the roots of his passion. He described being chained, wrist to wrist and ankle to ankle, to a Black prisoner en route to Dannemora prison in 1944, where Schappes spent part of a 13-month sentence for perjuring himself before a New York State investigative committee regarding his Communist ties:
The ride was long; conversation was short. After a few hours, I noticed my companion was squirming in his seat. He was sweating in the cold. “What’s wrong, man?” No answer. “Anything I can do?” No answer, just squirms and squirms and pain writ large on his face. Finally, he let it out: He had to go to the toilet; he was afraid of me; what I would do if he, Black, had to sit and shit while I, handcuffed to him and with leg-irons binding us, had to stand there? I hurried him painfully to the narrow train toilet and hovered over him perforce while he relieved himself. His gratitude was embarrassing, but the incident was infinitely and permanently illuminating. For I had studied the “Negro question,” as it was then called, intensively. In fact, it was through my study of the Negro question that I became interested in the Jewish question... and was thus rescued from the cosmopolitanism into which I had lapsed... at City College, with its pervasive atmosphere of deracination, deculturation, and “melting pot” pressures. So I knew about the “special character” of the Negro question; I knew that equality of opportunity was not enough for a people that had been enslaved and then Jim Crowed into a position of inferiority out of which it would emerge only by special consideration; I knew all this theoretically... But the experience with this Black prisoner stripped away totally the idea that we were equal [in our oppression]... even when we were shackled to one another
Schappes and numerous other JC writers thus coached me not to allow my victimization in some unpleasant petty crimes to turn my attention from the much larger victimization of African Americans. Instead, I learned to embrace the fact that we are all shackled together — and that our release from the ball and chain of racism is a prerequisite for the unshackling of America from many of its most fundamental social problems. Whatever privilege I gain by virtue of my skin color is at least partly neutralized by the humanity I lose and the sadness I gather by living in an unjust society; by the illusions of individual merit and self-reliance that are offered me as salves to the conscience; by the real dangers of crime and even violence that poverty and racism produce. As Dr. King put it (quoted in a JC editorial in January-February, 2005, “Dr. King and Human Possibility”), “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality...” Still, it’s hard to make that perception real — and mutual. JUST LAST AUTUMN, as I walked through the farmers market of Union Square Park, I was motioned over to a t-shirt table staffed by a vivacious young Black man looking to make a sale. He held up a shirt that showed Stokely Carmichael under the slogan, “Black Power,” and gave me a big smile. I chuckled and shook my head. “To tell you the truth, I appreciate what Stokely did with that phrase, but I don’t appreciate how he eventually turned against my people.” “Tell me what you mean,” he said. “I’m Jewish. After Stokely became Kwame Ture, he expressed a lot of anti-Semitism.” “Y’all deserve it,” the young man said. Whoa! As I walked away indignantly, he said it again, “Y’all deserve it!” — which fetched me back a few minutes later, resolved to speak my mind. “Do you know how many of my people voted for Barack Obama?” I began to pontificate. He didn’t care much about Obama, he said. “Do you know about Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney? About the Freedom Riders?” I continued. “Tell me,” he said, again with that big smile. I trotted out the statistics from the hey-day of Black-Jewish solidarity, and then I recalled Morris Schappes’ prison chain imagery. “The thing is,” I added, “I’m not saying that it was just for you, or just for Black people, that Jews were getting arrested and beaten. They were doing it for themselves. They were doing it for me.” “See, y’all are in it for yourself,” he said, poking a finger at me. “Whatever Stokely said, y’all deserve it!” So much for dialogue. At least I had spoken up, and spoken the truth: for even with Barack Obama sitting in the White House (while carefully not directly addressing issues of racial justice in America), and even with Clarence Thomas and other Black conservatives robbing me of my fantasies about the ubiquity of Black liberalism, the truth is that racism isn’t just their problem, it’s our problem. The horrific statistics about Black impoverishment and imprisonment are bad enough, but worse, racism is the spinal cord of the conservatism and reaction that impede progress for everyone in America. The Republican Party, founded once upon a time as the party of federalism and free labor, has for decades staked its fortunes on white racist backlash, especially in the South. Similarly, the ‘leave us alone,’ anti-government ideology of the Tea Party is, consciously or not, a denial of our collective responsibility for American history, and especially for what Abraham Lincoln described in his second inaugural as “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil... and... every drop of blood drawn with the lash.” But progressive Jews know better. We understand the staying power of racism. We know from our culture not to “stand idly by your brother’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). Most important, we have seen first-hand the renaissance of Jewish vitality engendered by worldwide historical reckoning with the Holocaust — including reparations paid by Germany to Israel and to survivors. I expect Jewish Currents to continue to put that knowledge to work on behalf of the Black liberation struggle for as long as we publish. Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents.