How the Black-Jewish Alliance Changed America — and Today’s Fight for Suffrage

In our research and teachings on African-American and Jewish-American relations, we often find ourselves unraveling misconceptions about their storied Civil Rights-era partnership. Our efforts to “keep it real” are not intended to diminish the achievements of their “Grand Alliance”. Rather, our unsentimental assessment of the relationship between Gentile Blacks and White Jews provides context for reflecting on today’s challenges, like the battle to reclaim the right to vote.

Let’s start with the achievements. By mid-century, southern states sought to expand Jim Crow, while northern cities engaged in their own forms of discrimination. Black and Jewish strategists responded by orchestrating a national action plan. The following “Freedom Struggle Campaign” of 1953 basically framed the NAACP legal strategy for the civil rights movement. The passing of Voting Rights Act 1965 was another triumph, removing (albeit temporarily) barriers to voting for African Americans.

That same year, the Alliance generated its most iconic image. There is not a liberal Jewish institution in the United States that has not posterized the greatest visual testimony of interfaith and multicultural activism in America: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with their arms related to Selma, Alabama, leis draped around their necks. (This image appears above.)

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Yet accomplishments and optics have obscured more complex realities. A popular belief about the Alliance is that from its inception in 1909 (i.e., when the NAACP was founded), it was based on a sense of “comradeship” rooted in mutual recognition of the common oppression. There were certainly history buffs in both groups who recognized that their counterparts had endured (and continue to endure) the worst that Western white Christianity had to offer. Yet, in keeping with James Baldwin’s maxim that suffering ennobles no one, we must recognize that pragmatism, more than empathy, fueled their relationship.

First- and second-generation American Jews fleeing the iron furnace of Eastern Europe saw the black experience as a frightening proof of concept. The concept being that this nation too could show unimaginable cruelty to a minority. For the Jews, squalor was like a crumple zone. He absorbed the impact of white Christian violence while warning of impending danger. When Jewish leaders argued for black civil rights, self-interest considerations were not without consequence.

The same applies to underfunded but intellectually and tactically alert African-American organizations. The Jews provided them with financial resources. They have also served as a hallway to an arsenal of sophisticated legal and political weapons – all useful in the fight against disenfranchisement, segregation and anti-blackness in general.

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This warp zone/corridor partnership was nurtured by elites – a “talented tenth” of clergy, lawyers, journalists, academics, artists, etc., almost all men. That left about nine deciles of black and Jewish men and women to forge their own relationships. These grassroots encounters have been tense and filled with allegations of racism and anti-Semitism (as well as actual racism and anti-Semitism).

We blame it on structural asymmetries. When the Great Migration propelled black people north in the early 20th century, they encountered Ashkenazi Jews in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere. In these urban enclaves, the relationship between Jews and blacks was often that of landlord to tenant, grocer to customer, housewife to maid, and so on. Such systematic inequality is never likely to promote solidarity.

That being said, Jews were unusual among white ethnic groups. While the latter violently resisted black migration to their communities, the Jews did not. Even Jews who eventually “escaped” from their integrated neighborhoods were often left behind as business owners, teachers, etc. there were so many at so many different social levels. The result was endless interactions, some of which led to empathy.

Behind the scenes, the elites tried to ease these tensions on the ground, even as they bickered among themselves. There were cracks in groups too, especially between a younger generation of radicals and the old guard civil rights leadership. Six Day War. At this momentous historical juncture, many members of the Black Power movement began to equate Israel with white settler colonialism. It probably tore the Grand Alliance apart.

The next half-century, or what we call the era of “afterglow,” witnessed a dismal litany of black/Jewish melee. These ranged from 1968 Ocean-Hill Brownsville teachers’ strike to disputes regarding affirmative action at the “Andrew Young case“from 1979 to anti-Semitic provocations by a few black leaders dismayed by Israel’s diplomatic relations with the apartheid regime of South Africa until Crown Heights Riots from 1991.

And yet: the Black-Jewish Alliance has done a world of good. In terms of impact, it is the liberal equivalent of uniting conservative white evangelicals and Roman Catholics; America is a different country because of their activism.

Today, as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act hangs in the balance, the Alliance has some lessons to impart. The first is that various coalitions job. Activists today must convince many different groups that failing to pass the law will do more than just disenfranchise black voters.

The second is that diverse coalitions work when they season pragmatism with empathy. The late Representative John Lewis, a bridge to the Alliance, fully understood this recipe when he wrote: “The gay community, women – my connection to them and their issues stemmed from that same affinity I felt with the people Jewish, understanding what it means to be treated unequally.”

The greatest benefit is that diverse coalitions work when they are well led. The Alliance had talented, focused, shrewd, and pragmatic stewards. Today, the quintessential “drama-free” senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia work alongside Noir and Jewish women to protect the right to vote (a corrective to the Alliance’s gender imbalances).

Despite this black Jewish duo, no real effort exists to “bring the group together”. Maybe that’s good. The blacks and the Jews accomplished their heroisms. These have been recorded by scholars like us. Let other combinations of Americans study, innovate and refine their messy formula of marriage group interest in social justice.

Learn more about the fight to save and expand voting rights: