In 1964, the Civil Rights Act Was Still a Dream. Then These Jewish Operatives Got to Work.
Joe Rauh, Arnold Aronson, and Marvin Caplan organized the Capitol Hill lobbying drive that made legislative victory possible
In an address broadcast on all three networks on the evening of June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced he was finally ready to introduce comprehensive civil rights legislation. Ever since the 1960 campaign, when Kennedy ran on civil rights, activists had been pressing him to turn his words into action—and ever since, he had been putting them off.
But a flurry of events, from the crisis over integrating the University of Mississippi the previous fall to the Birmingham demonstrations in the spring, had persuaded Kennedy that the moment had arrived. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he said, looking up from the pages of his speech. “It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” A week later, he submitted the strongest civil rights bill in history to Congress.
Civil rights activists around the country were ready to respond. On July 2, a few weeks after Kennedy’s watershed speech, they gathered at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, near Grand Central, to plan their next moves. The bill was good, but not good enough, they believed: It did not yet address employment discrimination, or give the attorney general enough power to intervene in civil rights cases.
Convened by the NAACP and the United Auto Workers, the meeting was held under the aegis of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an all but inactive umbrella group set up to focus on fair labor practices. No more: At the meeting, it was decided that, with UAW funding, the LCCR would become the organizing hub for lobbying for an even stronger bill.
Three men were appointed to play central roles in activating and guiding the reinvigorated LCCR: Joe Rauh, a Washington labor lawyer who with the NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell would become one of the organization’s two leading lobbyists on Capitol Hill; Arnold Aronson, its executive director and the former head of the Bureau on Jewish Employment Problems; and Marvin Caplan, who left his job as a reporter for Fairchild Publications to be Aronson’s right-hand man.
While the history of the Civil Rights Act is often told through a parade of bold-faced-names—starring figures like Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey—its passage was due just as much to the work of foot soldiers like Rauh, Aronson, and Caplan. All three were Jewish, and all three were crucial to the eventual enactment, nearly a year later, of the landmark bill.
And while popular memory fixes on major events like Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the passage of the actual legislation was a feat of painstaking lobbying, culminating in the successful effort to short-circuit the Senate filibuster of the bill that began on March 30, 1964. All through the summer and fall of 1963, Rauh and Mitchell pushed members of the House Judiciary Committee to beef up the bill. At the same time, Aronson and Caplan acted as a clearinghouse of information for the constituent organizations around the country, drumming up public interest in the bill in places like the Midwest, where there were so few blacks that race relations were practically a nonissue.
Working behind the scenes with liaisons from the Justice Department, they also brought a retinue of clergy and labor leaders to Washington, most notably the trio of Eugene Carson Blake from the National Council of Churches, Father John Cronin of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and Rabbi Irwin Blank of the Synagogue Council of America to testify before a judiciary subcommittee on July 24—an ecumenical milestone. Thanks in large part to pressure by the LCCR, the House Judiciary Committee expanded the bill significantly, including a ban on job discrimination because of race.
The real power of the LCCR and its affiliated Jewish groups became clear in early 1964, after the bill sailed out of the House and landed in the Senate, where pro-segregation Southern Democrats launched what became the longest filibuster in the chamber’s history. To defeat a filibuster, a bill’s supporters needed two-thirds of the senators present to vote for cloture, or to end debate. In the past, conservative Republicans had joined with the Southern Democrats to block civil rights legislation—less out of pro-segregationist leanings than a tit-for-tat agreement that the South would support their own priorities, like lower government spending. The pro-civil rights strategy, then, was to sever those ties and persuade Midwesterners to vote to end the debate.
All through that spring, rabbis and Jewish community leaders beat a path to the door of practically every single Senate office, both in Washington and back home. While none of these conservative Midwesterners were Jewish, they were pious, and they respected men of the cloth whatever faith they espoused. At times the activists resorted to creative approaches: A respected rabbi from a senator’s home state might “accidentally” meet him at the airport, having been tipped off about the trip by the LCCR’s network of informants on the Hill.
At the same time, groups like the Union of American Hebrew Congregations urged their affiliated synagogues around the country to enlist their congregations in the fight. A March 1964 missive encouraged rabbis to incorporate civil rights into their sermons, launch letter-writing campaigns, and “organize a delegation to come to Washington to meet with your Senator.”
American Jews played a central role in the civil rights movement from the start of the 20th century. In 1909 the Columbia professor Joel E. Spingarn helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and then went on to serve as chairman from 1914 to 1939. Jews gave extensively to other African-American causes; by one estimate, in 1935 as many as 40 percent of black children in the South attended a school funded by William Rosenwald, whose father owned Sears, Roebuck. In the 1930s Samuel Leibowitz, a Brooklyn lawyer, drew national praise in the black press for representing the Scottsboro boys.
The pace of Jewish support for civil rights grew during the 1950s, as the issue moved into mainstream America’s field of vision and many Jews, with the horrors of Nazism fresh in their minds, grasped viscerally the moral necessity of racial justice. Along with establishment organizations like the NAACP, new groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference relied on Jewish philanthropy to stay afloat. Jewish lawyers and activists led the charge for fair employment and open housing provisions in the north, while more than a dozen Jews traveled south to participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides.
Jewish support for the movement continued into the new decade and the new presidency. Like other corners of the liberal establishment, the country’s progressive Jewish organizations had greeted the Kennedy Administration with optimism, but also high expectations. Kennedy had campaigned hard on civil rights, and almost immediately the American Jewish Congress and others began peppering the White House with plans to put his words into action.
In June 1961 the organization sent him an eight-point civil rights plan, including such steps as a fair-employment practices commission and an end to Jim Crow segregation. When Kennedy announced that summer that he would take a go-slow approach to civil rights legislation, the group lashed out. “The American Jewish Congress charged today that gradualism as a means of achieving racial equality had proven a ‘folly and a failure,’ ” it said in a press release.
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