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.
The year 1963 was punctuated by an endless series of civil rights headlines, and Jews played a key role in many of them. Just after 2 a.m. on May 8, 1963, a plane from New York City bearing 19 conservative rabbis landed in Birmingham, Ala., which was in the midst of violent civil rights protests. Over the next two days the rabbis visited local churches, where they met with demonstrators and taught Hebrew songs. “Our people are your people,” said Rabbi Alex Shapiro of Pennsylvania. At night they stayed at the Gaston Motel, where King and other leaders had their headquarters. They left on the evening of May 9; two days later, the Gaston was bombed.
Jews also flocked to Washington that August to participate in the March on Washington. In practically every photo from the event, striding beside King is the diminutive Rabbi Joachim Prinz, smiling broadly behind a pair of sunglasses. Prinz, the president of the American Jewish Congress, addressed the hundreds of thousands of people gathered that hot August afternoon on the Washington Mall just before King rose to give his famous speech, and he later joined the inner circle of civil rights leaders who met with President John F. Kennedy after the speeches were over.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson vowed to see the new legislation through. Lobbying by Jewish groups picked up significantly in early 1964, as the bill moved out of the liberal-dominated House Judiciary Committee and onto the House floor, where it faced the danger of crippling amendments from Southern Democrats and their conservative Republican allies. To make sure that the bill’s supporters had enough votes to defeat such moves, civil rights groups, including hundreds of rabbis and synagogue congregants, trooped around Capitol Hill during the debate, urging their representatives to back the bill without changes.
On Jan. 31, 1964, a bus chartered by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations pulled up in front of the congressional office buildings on Capitol Hill. The House was preparing to debate the Civil Rights Act, and the dozens of rabbis on the bus were there to join hundreds of other liberal activists converging on Washington to lobby their congressional representatives in favor of the bill. For many, it was their first step into politics, and organizers gave them mimeographed sheets with helpful tips. “When in a congressman’s office, get a visitor’s pass, so you can go to House gallery afterward,” one item read.
But perhaps the most impressive display of religious activism came that spring, as the Senate filibuster dragged into its third week. On April 19, 1964, three seminary students from New York—one Catholic, one Protestant, and one Jewish – gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial and stood there for several hours. They held a banner that read, “Night and Day as witness to our common effort to help secure Justice and equal rights for all our citizens by passing the Civil Rights Bill as it came from the House.” After a few hours, they were relieved by another trio, who stood for a few hours. And so on, for days, then weeks, on until the end of the filibuster in June.
It is impossible to say exactly how much impact any one group—Jewish activists, union lobbyists, civil rights workers—had on the success of the Civil Rights Act. But the role of public pressure was undeniable, and the American Jewish community played a key role in drumming up and focusing that pressure. They added a diversity of voices to the civil rights movement at a time when it was absolutely essential that the push for justice appear to have unified public support.
As the filibuster dragged on, the pileup of public support finally convinced many wavering senators to choose sides. On June 10, all 100 senators gathered in the Capitol to vote on a motion to end debate on the bill; 71 supported it, and the bill was as good as passed. Three weeks later, it landed on Johnson’s desk, where the president—a Southern Democrat, as fate would have it—signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law.
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