Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Real History: The Jewish Community in Selma Alabama Reflects on the Civil Rights Movement
Inspired by recent events, this week I am going to do a few posts on the real faces and real stories of the Civil Rights Movement years.
Herman Cain's defense of his craven non-participation during the height of the 1960s resistance to Jim Crow is a great entry point for reflecting on the fact that history is complex and not the stuff of 5th grade history class. Consider the historic lies that Dr. King was popular, that Civil Rights for black folks were embraced by most whites, and that all African Americans were noble warriors in a grand struggle of liberation.
Most people, on both sides of the colorline, were bystanders who wanted to stay out of the way of history.
This interview with some members of the Jewish community in Selma, Alabama brings to the forefront a number of issues. First, it points out how in-between peoples such as Jews who were still earning their whiteness in the 1950s and 1960s had to make a hard choice.
Would they be heroic? Would they be moral cowards?
Two, it challenges a uniform story about Jews and Black folks as "natural allies" (a premise I have always found problematic). And perhaps most provocatively, the Jews of Selma apparently forgot the lessons of shared historical suffering and empathy: their immediate financial, reputational, and personal safety trumped any sense of linked fate with black folks, a people like them who had also been oppressed.
True, there were heroes and there were villains in the Civil Rights moment and the long Black Freedom Struggle. But they were outliers. Most folks were just on cruise control as the world was changing around them.
None too different than today it would seem...