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Why Were ‘Selma’ Jews Who Fought for Civil Rights Ostracized?

For most Americans outside the South, Montgomery, Alabama today is a kind of civil rights museum, an indoor-outdoor repository of the 20th century movement for racial justice and equality.

The new film “Selma,” which opened in limited release over the Christmas weekend and is slated for wide theatrical release January 9, is likely only to reinforce that image. This riverside capital of 200,000 was, after all, the ultimate goal of the more than 3,000 marchers from Selma who finally arrived at their destination 50 miles away under federal protection on their third try, led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (having been beaten and turned back on two previous attempts).

Today, scattered throughout and around Montgomery, near the state’s center, are numerous celebratory sites, shrines and museums dedicated to seminal events that took place here in the mid-20th century: the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott and its pivotal players, the young King and Rosa Parks, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church; the façade of the former Greyhound bus terminal, where in 1961 city police watched a mob beat Freedom Riders; and of course, the 1965 marches from Selma, the first of which was brutally aborted when state police pummeled John Lewis — today a U.S. congressman — and others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The mass beatings took place outside of town in full view of the national media and its cameras.

For the numerous “heritage” tourists drawn to the city, there is also designer Maya Lin’s famous Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center and historical markers noting local slave-auction auctions and warehouse sites.

Although no monuments to them exist here, a courageous, prophetic minority among Montgomery’s educated and affluent Jewish community also served. This redemptive remnant saw beyond their time and place regarding segregation. Among them, a trio of rabbis, a public school teacher and a women’s rights activist all spoke out against the white supremacy gospel.

Without exception, these early local white civil rights advocates “were basically excommunicated” recalled Joe Levin, Jr., a son of Montgomery who came of age during the civil rights era, and eventually joined the civil rights movement. “Assimilation was the name of the game.”

Levin, the son of a prominent Jewish attorney, was in junior high school during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In a phone interview, he recalled being aware of it at the time, but was clueless about the issues of public transportation segregation that moved Montgomery’s black community to launch the mass action.

Years later, however, when he was a student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Levin’s friend Melvin Meyer, a campus newspaper editor, argued in editorials for integration of the university and throughout the Deep South. In response, the Ku Klux Klan harassed Meyer and burned a 12-foot cross on the lawn of his and Levin’s Jewish fraternity, ZBT.

“Prior to that time, I saw myself as a white Southerner,” Levin recalled on the web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I had not experienced that kind of naked hatred. Once my eyes were opened, I couldn’t ignore others who were persecuted around me… Melvin’s way was correct. The way I was instructed all my life was wrong.”

In 1971 Levin co-founded the SPLC to fight for racial justice and against domestic terrorism. He has since served it as president and as general counsel.

Since the 1830s, Alabama’s Jews have, overall, valued fitting in amicably with white society in the Deep South. German immigrants, some of whose names would become famous – mostly in finance – got their start here, when the prospering city exported cotton and imported slaves, as highlighted most recently in Sven Beckert’s widely-reviewed Empire of Cotton. Lehmans, Loebs, Weils and Seligmans began in Montgomery as peddlers, with packs and wagons, but quickly moved to town stores selling dry goods and clothing.

Several started buying raw cotton from farmers and plantation owners and became successful “factors,” as these middlemen were called, selling the commodity on behalf of the growers for a commission. Eventually, some of the more successful of these businessmen opened family branches in New York, which grew into great Wall Street houses. One Lehman Brothers scion, Herbert, became New York’s governor and a U.S. senator.

In the century following the Civil War, Montgomery’s Jews – perhaps because so many were retailers dependent on their white clientele – remained silent about race. Or worse. During Reconstruction, a Jew named Mordecai Moses became the city’s white supremacist mayor. In the 1950s, after the Brown vs. Board of Education mandated integrated schools, a number of Jewish businessmen even joined the White Citizens Council, a mostly middle class and small business coalition devoted to resisting the civil rights tide. In the midst of the bus boycott, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., voiced dismay over local Jewish quiescence.

“The national Jewish bodies have been most helpful,” King said. “But the local Jewish leadership has been silent. Montgomery Jews want to bury their heads and repeat that it is not a Jewish problem, but it is a fight between the forces of justice and injustice and I want them to join in with us on the side of justice.”

The moral dilemmas – and costs – to Southern Jewish communities grappling with race during this time have been keenly chronicled by authors like Eli Evans (The Provincials), Melissa Fay Greene (The Temple Bombing), and Marcie Ferris (Jewish Roots in Southern Soil).

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center is probably Montgomery’s best known institution, yet some in the city’s white establishment – including some Jews – still consider its staff members social pariahs and meddlesome outsiders. (Many think SPLC’s other co-founder, Morris Seligman Dees, Jr., and Mark Potok – editor of the SPLC’s Intelligence Report, its Hatewatch blog, and frequent center spokesman – are Jewish, but they’re not.) Some have even wondered whether this year’s 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March might revive memories of the tension between the city’s Jewish community and the Northern Jewish civil rights workers who came in the 1960s.

Daniel J. Puckett, associate professor of history at Troy University and an expert on Alabama’s Jewish community, doubts this. “Montgomery’s Jews have pretty much blocked out their silence, or think their role – or lack of one – is no longer relevant,” he said.

Today, Montgomery’s Jewish population, about 1,100 – although replenished over the years by Eastern European and Greek immigrants from the island of Rhodes – almost exactly matches its Civil War count. Like many Sunbelt Jewish communities outside vibrant metropolitan centers like Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Ft. Worth and Houston, and smaller, suburban centers like Charlotte and Orlando, congregations in Montgomery are shrinking and aging – some dramatically. Rumors say some association or merger might further consolidate the local Reform and Conservative congregations.

Before services on a recent Friday night at Beth Or, the Reform congregation where the SPLC’s Joe Levin is a member, cultural assimilation is obvious. Worshipers try to unload surplus persimmons from their yards. During the service, deep Southern accents shift effortlessly into flawless liturgical Hebrew. It’s a sparse crowd, with Rabbi Elliot Stevens, a New York import, at the pulpit. Behind him, a wooden screen conceals a cantorial soloist and organist.

The next morning, at Agudat Israel/Atz Hayem, a merged Askenazi/Sephardi, Conservative congregation, the bulletin cautions against serving catfish – treyfe – at upcoming dinners for prospective members. Barely a minyan occupies the chapel where the service is being held, next to the much larger but empty main sanctuary. One problem becomes evident late in the (almost-entirely-in-Hebrew) service, as worshipers slip away. A man in the pew in front of me turns around and confides in a whisper: At two-and-a-half hours, prayers conflict with kickoff time for hometown college football favorites.

In a city where collegiate athletics rival evangelical Christianity for stimulating zealous devotion, Montgomery’s Jewish community recently hit the jackpot. Nearby Auburn University hired basketball coach Bruce Pearl – fired from the University of Tennessee in 2011 for NCAA recruiting violations – to help the Tigers’ struggling men’s program. Pearl, with over 400 career victories, spent his three-year NCAA suspension as an ESPN analyst. He is also president of the Jewish Coaches Association and coached the 2009 Maccabi USA team to a World Maccabiah Games gold medal.

Last October, Pearl spoke at the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama’s annual fundraiser. His speech, studded with jokes and sports anecdotes, drew a healthy crowd of 80 people, with 100 pledges totaling $66,700 toward the federation’s $400,000 annual goal.

“The energy in the room, the spirit of community, the conversations, the laughter and the kindness were truly inspiring to us,” said Anna Bern, the federation’s executive director.

The speech also demonstrated to Montgomery’s non-Jews that Jews, too, could be sufficiently sports-mad to produce their own hard-charging, corner cutting, win-at-any-cost, coach. That is, if they’re not still nursing a grudge from 2005. That year Pearl, then coach of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers, upset the University of Alabama in the NCAA men’ basketball tournament. Forget, hell!

Mark I. Pinsky is author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed, among other books.

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