Jewish-Black Alliance Hardly A Film Romance


Few understand the mysteries within old love affairs; not even the lovers themselves. American Jews have had few, if any, relationships as romanticized as the Jewish involvement with the civil rights movement.

But what really happened? Was it unrequited or a serious relationship?

Everyone agrees that it isn’t what it was, but was it ever? Al Vorspan, who led the Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center for many years, told us that the relationship’s ending “broke my heart.”

But Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, thinks we flatter ourselves. Yes, many Jews have “warm memories of what they did, and they thought their contributions were important, and they still brag about it. It’s true, Jews provided some of the funding; there were Jewish lawyers; there were Jews who volunteered to go South, but I remember Howard Squadron,” who was president of the American Jewish Congress and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, “saying, ‘Our memories of the black-Jewish alliance are simply inaccurate,” Stern recalled. “The alliance was never anywhere nearly as strong as we made it out to be.’ We overstated our role.”

Stern added, “I would say, generally, the Jewish memory of our contributions to the civil rights movement probably exceed the reality by an order of magnitude.”

Like a divorced spouse scissored out of the photo albums, Jewish involvement with civil rights has been minimized or essentially photoshopped out of existence by Hollywood. In the 2014 movie “Selma” (2014), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the most iconic of spiritual leaders allied with Martin Luther King, was not in the film, completely excised from his famous place alongside King at the very front of the Selma march. Rabbi Vorspan wrote to the RAC that the film emphasized “a trend I have watched for decades with mounting discomfort — the gradual bleaching out of the Jewish role in the civil rights revolution in America.”

Now a second movie, “Marshall,” which opens here Friday, is stirring similar Jewish concerns. Like “Selma,” the new film is “based on a true story.” It centers on a 1941 rape case being tried in Bridgeport, Conn., in which the black defendant is represented by a young Thurgood Marshall, more than 20 years before his appointment as the first black Supreme Court justice.

At the time, Marshall led the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Because Marshall was not a member of the Connecticut bar, the NAACP teamed him with a Samuel Friedman, a local Jewish lawyer depicted as an inexperienced, overweight, George Costanza-like marionette doing Marshall’s bidding. Marshall put it more biblically, seeing himself as Moses (who couldn’t talk in court) and Friedman as Aaron.

Although “in real life” Friedman could have easily declined the job, the movie has Friedman preferring not to help the black defendant. He tells Marshall, “I do insurance work. … I got a reputation to think of.”

Marshall treats him with condescension, if not contempt. At the railroad station, Marshall orders Friedman to carry Marshall’s luggage, although Marshall’s hands are free. When Friedman is driving, Marshall, without asking, changes the car’s radio station from Friedman’s favorite station to Marshall’s.

Marshall tells Friedman, “I need someone who’ll do as I say.” Friedman replies, “What makes you think I’ll do as you say?” “You have no choice,” says Marshall. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

The Virginia Law Weekly, published by the University of Virginia Law School, reviewed the film, noting that Joshua Gad, who played Friedman, “captured the essence of a bumbling new lawyer.”

Jenna Goldman, editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Weekly, was intrigued enough to investigate the actual rape case, Connecticut vs. Spell. Goldman discovered that this “real story” was far from real in how it depicted the Jewish lawyer.

“I am not sure Friedman was given enough credit as an attorney in his own right,” writes Goldman. “If historical accuracy was not the point and his character was meant to be a foil to the impressively skilled Marshall, then I concede. But Samuel Friedman was a far more accomplished lawyer, and a more willing participant, than the tongue-tied and insecure Gad portrayed him to be. Second, and no offense to Gad, but generally Hollywood casts actors who are better looking than the real-life character; the real Samuel Friedman was actually a very handsome and slender man (I wondered if the physical choice to cast Gad was to play up a certain stereotype…)”

Gad, a Jew himself, told JTA, the liberties taken by the movie “were well within the accepted limits of films.” Well, that’s fine, if one accepts that there is nothing wrong with a Jewish person (who passed away) being both physically and professionally humiliated on-screen.

In 2005, another law journal, Legal Affairs, researched the case and also found Friedman was nothing like he ended up on screen. Daniel Sharfstein, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, writes that Friedman had been practicing law since the 1920s, meaning that by 1941, Friedman was hardly inexperienced. He was not a pushover, either, “developing a reputation as a tenacious advocate with a flair for courtroom drama.”

How many liberties can films take before “based on a true story” isn’t true at all?

The constitution says all men are created equal, but it was the brilliant work of people like Marshall and Friedman who made it a reality.

“Marshall” director Reginald Hudlin told Hadassah magazine that his film “is a celebration of the alliance between black and Jewish attorneys in the civil rights movement. The constitution says all men are created equal, but it was the brilliant work of people like Marshall and Friedman who made it a reality.”

It should be noted that the screenwriters for “Marshall” were Jews, as was Jack Greenberg, the leading Jewish lawyer for the NAACP, who worked alongside Marshall on the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education. (Efforts to reach the screenwriters were unsuccessful.)

Rabbi Vorspan, who, with other Reform rabbis, was jailed down South for his activism, told us that aside from the rabbis, many Jews who went South for civil rights “could not name a Hebrew prophet or identify the Jewish values driving them to action.”

Several veterans of 1964’s Freedom Summer estimated that there were around 500 Jews (out of around 1,000 white people) who went South that summer. Two of those Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were famously murdered for the cause, but memory is selective. In 1965, two Unitarians, Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb, were also murdered. Do Unitarian now speak of a “broken heart” over the end of a black-Unitarian alliance?

Dorothy Zellner, a self-described Jewish Communist who worked in the South and for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1964, estimated that “maybe 10 to 15 percent of the SNCC staff was Jewish.” Two years later, SNCC voted to expel all whites. “It was a very painful,” she said, “but I do understand where they were coming from.”

In “A World Ignited: How Apostles of Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Hatred Torch the Globe” (2007), by Martin and Susan Tolchin write that by the 1980s, the black-Jewish romance was nothing but a one-sided Jewish infatuation. The Tolchins tell of Marshall being asked by a Jewish friend, “What’s happened between you blacks and us Jews? We were in the civil rights movement together. We were in the labor movement together. We marched on the picket lines together. Our kids died together in Mississippi. What’s happened?”

Marshall, sounding like an old boyfriend who moved on, said, “It’s true that we blacks and you Jews have been going together for a long, long time, but you know and I know that we ain’t never going to get married.”

And yet, during the run-up to last November’s election, the NAACP teamed with the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center on a major voter registration drive in the South. And Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who heads the RAC, was appointed earlier this year to the board of the NAACP. “Eliminating racism and expanding civil rights are intrinsic Jewish values,” the rabbi said in a statement. “I could not be more proud to join the board of the NAACP to help advance those goals.”