March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. and Joachim Prinz, 1963

Jews played a vital role in the American Civil rights movement, forming impactful alliances with African American leaders and organizations. Fueled by a shared history of discrimination, Jewish individuals and groups like the Anti-Defamation League actively supported the fight against racial injustice. Several prominent Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Jack Greenberg marched alongside figures like Martin Luther King Jr and also contributed significantly to landmark legal victories.[1]

This collaboration extended beyond symbolism to encompass financial support, legal expertise, and grassroots activism, reinforcing the movement's strength. With many Jews taking up leadership positions within the NAACP.[2] The collaboration between Jews and African Americans helped each minority fight persecution.[3]


Overview of the civil rights movement

The Civil rights Movement, spanning from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, was a successful organized effort to obtain legalized racial equality and justice in the United States. Rooted in the aftermath of slavery and segregation, the movement sought to highlight, discuss, and dismantle legalized discrimination based on race by studying and applying the words of the Sermon on the Mount, the documents of America's Founding Fathers, and the words and techniques of Mohandas Gandhi.[4][5][6]

Led by prominent figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and James Bevel, activists employed nonviolence, nonviolent civil disobedience, protests, and legal challenges to peacefully address legalized racial inequality. Landmark events, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham children's crusade, the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968, marked significant milestones in ending legalized segregation and institutionalized racism. The Civil Rights Movement laid the groundwork for subsequent social justice movements, shaping the national dialogue on equality, civil liberties, and the ongoing pursuit of a more just and inclusive society.[6]

Overview of Jews and Jewish organizations in the civil rights movement

Joachim Prinz, Martin Luther King Jr., and Shad Polier at American Jewish Congress fundraising event

Jewish individuals and organizations played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, contributing significantly to the fight against racial injustice. Since the outset of the Civil Rights Movement, Black and Jewish communities have stood in solidarity.[7] In 1909, W.E.B. Du Bois, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Stephen Wise, and Henry Malkewitz formed the NAACP. In 1910, other prominent figures established the Urban League. Collaboration continued in 1912 when Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington worked together to improve Southern Black education. These early partnerships exemplify a shared dedication to civil rights, equality, and education, laying the groundwork for a lasting alliance between Black and Jewish communities.[7][8]

About 50 percent of the civil rights attorneys in the South during the 1960s were Jews, as well as over 50 percent of the Whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 to challenge Jim Crow laws.[3][7] Many Jews, deeply rooted in their historical experiences of persecution, identified with the struggles of African Americans and were motivated by a shared commitment to social justice. Within organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Jewish leaders such as Joel Elias Spingarn and his brother Arthur B. Spingarn were instrumental in shaping legal strategies and advocating for equal rights.[9] The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) expanded its mission beyond combating anti-Semitism to address all forms of discrimination.[10] This shift reflected a broader commitment to fighting racial injustice, with the ADL actively supporting African American leaders and causes. The American Jewish Congress, another influential organization, saw leaders like Rabbi Joachim Prinz actively participating in key civil rights events, including the historic March on Washington in 1963. On an individual level, figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., emphasizing the intersectionality of their struggles. The tragic deaths of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman during the Freedom Summer highlighted the personal risks some Jewish activists faced.[11]

Jews and civil activism in the US

Jews as a minority in the US

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Jewish immigration to the United States commenced in the early 19th century, with the first notable wave featuring German-speaking Jews seeking economic opportunities and religious freedoms. However, it was the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century that witnessed a significant surge, marked by Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution and economic hardships. These immigrants, primarily Ashkenazi Jews, settled in urban areas, particularly New York City, forming vibrant communities.[12] Jews' affiliation with other minorities in the U.S. can be traced to shared experiences of marginalization and discrimination. Having faced anti-Semitism, Jews empathized with the struggles of African Americans and other minority groups. This shared understanding of oppression and a commitment to social justice created natural alliances.[13][14][15][16]

Jews in social justice movements prior to the civil rights movement

Prior to the civil rights movement, Jewish individuals were actively engaged in various social justice causes, showcasing a commitment to fighting injustice and inequality. In the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe, faced harsh working conditions in industries such as garment manufacturing. This led to Jewish participation in labor movements, advocating for fair wages and improved working conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which claimed the lives of predominantly Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers, galvanized the Jewish community's involvement in workers' rights. Jewish labor activists, such as Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman, played prominent roles in organizing labor strikes and pushing for legislative reforms.[17]

Additionally, during the Progressive Era, Jewish reformers like Lillian Wald and Jane Addams were instrumental in establishing settlement houses and social welfare organizations. These initiatives aimed to address the socio-economic challenges faced by immigrants in urban centers. Jews were also actively involved in the women's suffrage movement, with figures like Rose Schneiderman advocating for women's rights and suffrage alongside their broader commitment to social justice causes.[18] These instances underscored the early 20th-century Jewish community's activism in addressing societal injustices and paved the way for their continued involvement in subsequent civil rights movements.[19][15]

Civil rights organizations

NAACP ( National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established in 1909 in response to the widespread racial violence and discrimination against African Americans. At its inception, the NAACP aimed to dismantle institutionalized racism and secure civil rights for African Americans through legal means. Jewish individuals played a pivotal role in the formation and early leadership of the NAACP. Joel Elias Spingarn, a prominent Jewish scholar, educator, and civil rights advocate, served as the organization's chairman from 1914 to 1919.[20] His brother, Arthur B. Spingarn, also a key figure in the NAACP,[21] chaired the organization for two decades starting in 1919. The Spingarn brothers' influence extended beyond leadership roles, as they actively contributed to legal initiatives within the NAACP.[22] Joel Spingarn, in particular, used his legal acumen to shape the organization's strategies.[23] His dedication to the cause of equal rights was instrumental in advancing the NAACP's legal efforts, including its focus on anti-lynching legislation and educational equality.[24][25]

Jews within the NAACP were notable in leadership positions, advocacy and activism. Their involvement in legal initiatives, often working alongside African American leaders, helped establish the NAACP as a powerful force in challenging discriminatory laws and practices. Jewish lawyers within the NAACP, such as Charles Houston, often referred to as the "man who killed Jim Crow,"[26] and Jack Greenberg who succeeded Thurgood Marshall as the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, played critical roles in landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.[27] Herbert Hill was the NAACP labor secretary from 1951 to 1977.He played a significant role in advancing the cause of economic justice and equality for African American workers.[28]

ADL (Anti Defamation League)

Established in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) originally focused on combatting anti-Semitism, aiming to defend the rights of the Jewish community in the United States.[29] As its mission evolved, the ADL expanded its commitment to fighting all forms of discrimination. Notably, during the Civil Rights Movement, the ADL played a pivotal role in supporting African American leaders and organizations. The organization forged a meaningful partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, providing both financial and legal support. This collaboration underscored the ADL's shared commitment to justice and civil rights, recognizing that the battle against discrimination transcended religious boundaries. In a landmark contribution to the legal landscape of civil rights, the ADL filed an amicus curiae brief in the historic case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954).[30] This pivotal legal maneuver supported the end of racial segregation in public schools, exemplifying the ADL's dedication to the broader principles of equality and justice.[31] Simultaneously, the ADL actively opposed segregationist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, using its resources to monitor and expose hate groups that promoted discrimination and violence against African Americans.[32][33][34]

Beyond legal advocacy, the ADL initiated educational initiatives aimed at promoting tolerance and combating racism at its roots. These programs sought to address prejudice and discrimination comprehensively, fostering understanding and cooperation among diverse communities. The multifaceted involvement of the ADL in the Civil rights movement, including partnerships, legal interventions, opposition to hate groups, and educational initiatives, showcased the organization's commitment to dismantling systemic discrimination and promoting a society founded on principles of equality and justice.[35][36][33]

Joachim Prinz speaking at March on Washington, with Bayard Rustin pictured, 1963

American Jewish Congress

The American Jewish Congress (AJC), founded in 1918, played a significant role in civil rights advocacy during a critical period in American history. Committed to promoting social justice and equality, the AJC actively engaged in various civil rights initiatives.[37] Stanley Levinson, king's advisor also served in the Manhattan board of the AJC.[38] One of the prominent leaders within the organization was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, whose contributions left a lasting impact on the intersection of Jewish and civil rights activism. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, serving as the president of the AJC from 1958 to 1966, emerged as a key figure in the civil rights movement. His leadership emphasized the shared commitment to justice among diverse communities.[39] Rabbi Prinz notably participated in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. His impassioned speech during the event, delivered just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" address, highlighted the interconnected actions against prejudice and discrimination. Rabbi Prinz's eloquent articulation of the moral imperative for civil rights underscored the AJC's dedication to the broader principles of equality and justice within the context of the larger civil rights movement.[40][37]

Prominent Jewish activists

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in 1907 in Poland, was a prominent Jewish theologian and philosopher who became a leading figure in the American Civil Rights Movement. Fleeing the Nazis, Heschel immigrated to the United States in 1940, where he contributed profoundly to Jewish scholarship. His philosophy emphasized the spiritual and ethical dimensions of Judaism, advocating for social justice and interfaith understanding. In the 1960s, Rabbi Heschel played a pivotal role in the Civil rights movement, marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in key events such as the Selma to Montgomery march.[41] Their collaboration extended beyond symbolism; they shared a deep friendship and mutual respect. Heschel's unique blend of intellectual rigor and spiritual insight added a moral dimension to the Civil Rights Movement, emphasizing the moral duty to confront injustice. His iconic statement, "I felt my legs were praying" during the marches, encapsulates the profound spiritual commitment he brought to the struggle for equality.[42][43]

Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, murder in Mississippi

FBI poster of missing

Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, along with James Chaney, were civil rights activists murdered during the Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi in 1964. The three young men were involved in efforts to register African American voters in the deeply segregated South. On June 21, 1964, the trio were investigating the burning of a black church when they were arrested by local law enforcement. Later that evening, they were released but were ambushed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.[44] The activists were brutally beaten and murdered, their bodies buried in an earthen dam.[44] The deaths of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney shocked the nation and intensified the urgency of the Civil Rights Movement.[45] Outrage over the murders contributed to increased national attention on the struggles in the South. The incident became a catalyst for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both landmark pieces of legislation aimed at dismantling segregation and ensuring the right to vote for African Americans.[46] In 1967, seven men, including Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, were convicted. Despite the convictions, it took decades for all those responsible to face justice.[44]

Jack Greenberg

Jack Greenberg (1924–2016) was a distinguished American attorney and civil rights champion known for his leadership at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) from 1961 to 1984. Succeeding Thurgood Marshall,[47][27] Greenberg played a crucial role in advancing the legal fight against racial segregation and discrimination during the tumultuous era of the Civil Rights Movement. His tenure marked a continuation of the LDF's commitment to strategic litigation for social change. Greenberg's legal contributions were pivotal in several landmark cases, including the successful defense of James Meredith's right to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962.[47][27] He also played a key role in the groundbreaking case Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969), which compelled the immediate desegregation of public schools. Greenberg's legal acumen and strategic vision demonstrated the transformative impact of targeted litigation in dismantling institutionalized racism. Greenberg left an enduring legacy in civil rights history. His leadership at the LDF solidified the organization's role as a force in the ongoing movement for racial justice in the United States.[47][27][48]

Joachim Prinz

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, drawing from his experiences in Germany during Hitler's regime, empathized with the African-American struggle in the United States. During an exploratory visit in 1937 and upon his return to Germany, Prinz expressed his solidarity with African-Americans, emphasizing parallels between their plight and that of German Jews. Settling in Newark, a city with a significant minority community, Prinz spoke against discrimination from his pulpit and actively participated in protests across the U.S., advocating against racial prejudice in various aspects of life.[49][50]At the 1960 AJC Convention he said the following:

(As Jews), we work for freedom and equality. This is the heart of what we call the civil rights program....These are not mere words. These are the ideas which...have come to mean so much from the days when the author of third book of Moses coined that great sentence about liberty which is engraved upon the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.[51]

As president of the American Jewish Congress (AJC), Prinz sought to position the organization prominently in the civil rights movement. He met with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958, requesting support for a conference on integration at the White House. Prinz, a key speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, stressed the importance of speaking out against discrimination based on his experiences in Nazi Germany. His address preceded Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. There he said: "the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence." Prinz continued his involvement in civil rights, attending King's funeral in 1968 after his assassination.[51][50]

Collaboration, challenges and legacy

Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a significant and transformative collaboration between African American and Jewish leaders, marking a critical alliance against racial segregation and discrimination in the United States.[52] This partnership emerged from a shared commitment to justice, equality, and the dismantling of institutionalized racism. African Americans and Jews, both historically marginalized groups, found common ground in their struggles for civil rights and civil liberties. A key factor in this collaboration was the recognition of the historical parallels between the Jewish experience and the African American struggle.[52][53][54]

Both communities had faced discrimination, prejudice, and violence, fostering a mutual understanding of the challenges each group confronted. Jewish leaders and organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress, played instrumental roles in supporting the Civil rights movement financially, legally, and morally. Prominent Jewish individuals, including rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel and legal scholars like Jack Greenberg, actively participated in marches and protests alongside African American leaders. The iconic image of Rabbi Heschel walking arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Selma to Montgomery march remains a powerful symbol of this collaboration.[55] However, challenges and tensions were not absent from this collaboration. As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, differences in approach, priorities, and perspectives arose between African American and Jewish leaders. Some tensions were rooted in varying historical and cultural contexts, as well as differences in socio-economic status. Additionally, as the 1960s unfolded, political and ideological shifts contributed to strains in the relationship.[54][56]

The emergence of the Black power movement and the rise of anti-Israel sentiment in some segments of the African American community added complexity to the collaboration.[54] While Jewish leadership, individuals and organizations continued to support civil rights, the dynamic shifted, and some Jewish leaders faced criticism from within their own communities for their perceived alignment with movements biased against Israel.[57] Despite these challenges, the collaboration between African American and Jewish leaders during the Civil rights movement left an enduring legacy, with Jews demonstrating overwhelming condemnation of the 2020 George Floyd killing.[58] The achievements of this partnership include legislative victories like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dismantled legal barriers to equality.[59][60][61]

Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon, played a pivotal role in fostering collaboration between Black and Jewish communities. In 1982, he joined forces with concerned citizens from Atlanta's Black and Jewish communities to campaign for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, renewing the bond between these communities.[8] Lewis marched alongside Jewish community members and co-established the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, emphasizing open dialogue and partnership. Throughout his career, Lewis consistently spoke out against antisemitism, advocated for Israel, and supported the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and 1980s.[8] His longstanding relationship with AJC included receiving various honors, and he served as a founding co-chair for the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations. In 2019, Lewis voiced opposition to the anti-Israel BDS movement, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and interaction between Israel and the United States. His dedication to justice, civil rights, and fostering unity between communities left an indelible mark on American history.[8]


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