Jews have been the most supportive group in the struggle of Blacks in America to improve their lot, according to Dr. Hasha Diner, a historian of Black-Jewish relations, who spoke to a luncheon sponsored by the American Jewish Congress.
Diner, an academic director at the American University in Washington, is the author of a recent book on Black-Jewish relations, “In the Almost Promised Land — American Jews and Blacks,” which she discussed at the luncheon Tuesday. Her talk was held in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the historic March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
Diner estimated that about 8,000 to 9,000 Jews participated in that march. “The whole spectrum of Jewish organizations was represented,” she said. Jews were also involved in the organization of the march, speeches and other facets.
“It was an event of importance to Jews as well as Blacks,” she said. “It was significant to them not only as Americans, but it also had a very specific Jewish focus for them …. Jews represented the only large group in the 1963 march that had no Black constituency,” such as various church groups or political organizations.
TRACES JEWISH INVOLVEMENT IN CIVIL RIGHTS
Diner traced American Jewish involvement in support of civil rights for Blacks for over half a century. The 1963 March on Washington “was the culmination of 60 years of massive involvement in civil rights … and Jews were far out of proportion to their numbers,” she said.
Looking back to the early 1900’s, she read excerpts from the Yiddish and American Jewish press which compared race riots, such as the brutal one in St. Louis, Mo., in 1916 in which Blacks were burned in their homes, to the Russian pogroms in Kishinev.
Eastern European Jews were able to identify very closely with the plight of the Blacks, Diner said. Race rioters were compared to the “Black Hundred,” the feared crack troops of the Russian Czar, which organized and led many pogroms. The site of a race riot was described by Jews as an “auto da fe,” the burning of heretics under the Spanish Inquisition. The Jewish newspapers also struck out vehemently against lynchings in the South, Diner said.
She also recalled the early organizers in the Jewish trade unions of the garment industry who helped the few Blacks in their ranks to organize. When a Black was present at a union meeting, it was forbidden to conduct business in Yiddish, Diner noted. It had to be held in English and then translated for the new immigrants. In 1935, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union played a critical role in organizing Black workers in Harlem, she added.
Jews were also among those who signed the original call in 1909 and joined with W.E.B. DuBois to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Diner recalled, and were also very active in helping A. Philip Randolph organize Pullman car porters.
Allen Dean, executive director of Montgomery County (Md.) Human Relations Commission, told the AJCongress luncheon, “We Blacks would not be where we are today without the support and help of the Jews.”
There are no estimates of how many Jews are expected to participate in this Saturday’s march. Some who want to attend will not do so because of the Sabbath. The American Jewish Congress and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) have endorsed the march. The New Jewish Agenda (NJA) has indicated that it expects many bus loads of marchers and is actively organizing its membership and friends to participate.
The NJA will sponsor a Friday night service at the American University, with Martin Luther King III as speaker. At another service, at Temple Sinai, Coretta Scott King, wife of the slain civil rights leader, and who is co-chairman of this Saturday’s march, UAHC president Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who will deliver the closing prayer at the march, NAACP leader Benjamin Hooks, and Joel Levy, a Washington attorney and co-chairman of the AJCongress’ national governing council, will commemorate the 1963 march.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.