With a slew of 50th anniversaries arriving soon—Bloody Sunday, the March 7, 1965 voting rights march on that was brutally stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, and the successful Selma-to-Montgomery trek that took place March 21-25, 1965—not to mention the movie Selma, Americans have had time to learn or remind themselves what leaders and their followers had to do to bring about voting rights in the South.
Much has been written about Northern Jews’ involvement in the fight for civil rights. But what was going through the minds of Jews who lived in the South at that time, in places like Selma?
An unpublished 1965 survey of Selma Jews provides a time capsule of their attitudes on race. It shines a light on what a fairly privileged minority group with a history of social justice thought about the ferment going on around them—and how they didn’t take part, because they were afraid and because they supported the status quo.
At least that’s what Marshall Bloom found. Bloom was an American studies major at Amherst College who surveyed Selma’s Jews in 1965 for his honors thesis. He was a student journalist and activist who went on to co-found Liberation News Service. The Jewish population of Selma reached its peak in the 1920s, at about 400 to 500 people. By the time Bloom came to Selma, the population had decreased to about 140. Today, the one synagogue has nine members; some non-Jewish spouses also participate.
Bloom divided Selma’s Jews into groups: German Jews whose families were settled; Eastern European/Russian immigrants and their children; post-war immigrants, often from New York; and recent German refugees. Most were professionals and businessmen, and well-educated. “Nowhere were the Jews more openly received than Selma,” Bloom wrote. Southern Jews wanted to fit in—so they abandoned “strange customs.”
He found that Jews were members of white social and civic groups and the country club. Token Jews sat on business and government boards and commissions. A few were members of the local White Citizens’ Council and Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse. Most notorious was Sol Tepper, an outspoken segregationist and Clark ghostwriter and spokesman. (When told that integration was inevitable, Tepper replied that death was also inevitable “but was not therefore to be embraced.”)
Jews dominated retail, and said they were afraid for their businesses if they spoke out for integration. One man told Bloom: “I fought for democracy in the war. But what do you do in a situation like this?” During a recent black boycott of white stores, business had gone down by around a third, and he had to lay off four of his 20 employees.
“We were worried about family businesses,” Ronnie Leet, president of the Selma synagogue and its youngest member, recently told me. He’s in his early 60s. Hanna Berger, another temple member, came to Selma with her family as refugees from Nazism. Her family feared that white gentiles would turn on them if they spoke up. Her father was a poor tailor and vulnerable, she said.
Some Jews invoked the Great White Fear of miscegenation. One man told Bloom he would object to a black shoe store clerk waiting on his wife because if “she were wearing a short dress, he could rub her ankles like this.” Like many other Jews in the South, those from Selma told Bloom they resented liberal national organizations for their civil rights agendas: “I hate Northern Jews. They threw us to the wolves. B’nai Brith told us there were more Jews in one block of Brooklyn than in Alabama.”
In 2009, a native Jewish Selmian told a reporter from the Jewish Telegraph Agency that “They”—Northern Jews—“should have stayed home.” Another longtime resident said that now everyone knows that integration was the right thing, but back then, “We thought everyone was happy the way they were.”
Arthur and Muriel Lewis were Jewish moderates in Selma who wrote to friends stating their position. The letter reached the White Citizens’ Council, which in April 1965 launched a boycott of their auto business. (Arthur sustained one heart attack, and died of the second. Muriel held the harassers responsible.)
Some Jews told Bloom the issue was not important—they had more pressing concerns: family and home.
S.L. Wisenberg is writing a book of creative nonfiction, Moments in Selma & Other Glimpses of the South (with more Jews than you would think), forthcoming in 2016 from the University of Georgia Press.
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S.L. Wisenberg is the author of three books, the most recent of which is The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press). She is a former Miami Herald staffer and has been published in dozens of literary magazines and anthologies. She grew up in Houston, where she was a substitute portrait artist at Astroworld amusement park, since razed.