Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s

"Black-Jewish relations and the civil rights movement needed a new historiographic perspective, a new generation’s approach and understanding of what actually happened."

Academic historians write historiography rather than history. History is a study of the past while historiography is a study of how different generations of historians look at the same event through their own lens. In other words, you can read a series of books on the same historical event and get very different, and sometimes even conflicting accounts, from the different authors. Scholars are always looking at history with new perspectives, new questions, and new academic interests, hoping to learn more from past events that we thought we understood.

For many years, historians (and journalists and even participants) in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s celebrated the alliance of two persecuted minorities working together to end Jim Crow segregation, pass a federal civil rights law, and realize Dr. King’s dream of ending racism in America. These articles and books, no matter their specific topic, centered their arguments on the hopeful and optimistic creation of an inter-racial alliance in the mid-1950s. They lionized white Jewish civil rights workers who justly deserve credit for the personal risks they took to advance the movement. When the black-Jewish alliance fractured in the mid-1960s, writers lamented the rise of black anti-Semitism, the purge of Jews from civil rights leadership, and the end of what they described as the “golden age” of black-Jewish cooperation.    

Yet, after spending a year in residence at the American Jewish Historical Society’s archives in New York City, I discovered scores of primary source historical documents, both public and private, that contradicted much of the existing written historical record. To my surprise, I soon realized that many vital historical documents from the era had not yet been examined, nor integrated into scholarly understandings of the period. Black-Jewish relations and the civil rights movement needed a new historiographic perspective, a new generation’s approach and understanding of what actually happened.

First, I learned that the era of black-Jewish cooperation in the 1950s proved far more fraught that we believed. Even as black and Jewish leaders offered impressive public images of working together, behind the scenes communications and even several published articles revealed a keen awareness of the limits inherent in white Jews seeking to partner with African Americans. The old idea of two oppressed minorities joining together just didn’t work when white Jews understood the privilege they enjoyed relative to their African American counterparts.

Next, I read source after source in the AJHS collection that revealed strong American Jewish organizational support for the rise of the Black Power movement. White, and mostly male, Jewish leaders predicted the rise of black militancy, understood its origins, agreed with its need, and discounted the threats posed by rising black anti-Semitism. In the 1950s, I learned, Jewish leaders offered encouraging words to the Nation of Islam. With the current controversy over Louis Farrakhan and the Women’s March, this seems quite surprising.

Black-Jewish relations and the civil rights movement needed a new historiographic perspective, a new generation’s approach and understanding of what actually happened.

Finally, I discovered that rather than a black-Jewish breakup in the mid-1960s, a new type of alliance developed between blacks and Jews. In this late 1960s and early 1970s version, blacks and Jews went their separate ways, but Jews leveraged the ideology of Black Power to create, inform and strengthen movements to bolster American Jewish identity. Soviet Jewry activists modeled their protests after black militant tactics. American Zionism emulated black Zionism after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War while a generation of Jewish youth rediscovered more traditional forms of Judaism in ways that their 1950s parents’ generation never did.

This new understanding of the black Jewish alliance, of the rise of Black Power and its impact on Jewish politics, resonates with so many issues facing contemporary Jews and American politics. To bring all these themes together, the AJHS along with the Hartman Institute are bringing together both scholars and community-based activists to talk about this book, examine its historical messages, and explore its relevance for today. Join us!

Marc Dollinger's Black Power Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s charts the transformation of American Jewish political culture from the Cold War liberal consensus of the early postwar years to the rise and influence of Black Power-inspired ethnic nationalism. He is also the author of Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America, and co-editor of California Jews and American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader. He holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University.

AJHS is home to the records of the American Jewish Congress, where numerous photos trace the participation of Rabbis and other prominent Jewish leaders in the 1963 March on Washingtonthe 1965 March from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, and other events and causes of the Civil Rights movement era. AJHS is also home to the collection of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, which helped Ethiopian Jews receive recognition, aid, and refuge as they were trying to flee Ethiopia since the 1970s.



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