by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Trent Lott not only lost the leadership of the U.S. Senate when he praised Strom Thurmond’s 1948 run for president on a racist platform. He also demonstrated that the battle against segregation is more than history; it is very much part of the American present tense.
It’s therefore worth remembering that Jews played an active role in many of the tumultuous desegregation battles of the mid-20th century. Perhaps the most unusual example was the alliance between militant American Zionists and black civil rights activists that helped smash the color barrier in Baltimore’s theaters. That story from half a century ago sheds light on the recent Jewish response to the Lott affair.
The incident centered around a play called “A Flag Is Born,” authored in 1946 by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Ben Hecht. Set in a European cemetery, “Flag” portrays an encounter between gravely ill Holocaust survivors and a young Zionist who makes an impassioned case for the right of the Jews to establish a state in the Land of Israel, then under British rule. Hecht was active in the American League for a Free Palestine, one of several political action committees established by Peter Bergson, a maverick Zionist activist from Jerusalem. Bergson was connected to the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground Jewish militia in Palestine headed by Menachem Begin.
Because of Bergson’s Irgun ties, and his clashes with liberal American Jewish leaders on other matters, his critics wrongly assumed that he and his colleagues were indifferent to issues such as black civil rights.
“Flag” sought to arouse public sympathy and raise funds for the Jewish revolt against the British. Hecht and Bergson persuaded an array of Hollywood celebrities to volunteer their services for “A Flag is Born.” The lead was given to a promising young actor by the name of Marlon Brando. Paul Muni and Celia Adler costarred; Luther Adler directed. The idea of establishing a Jewish state had attracted widespread sympathy among American entertainers, artists, and intellectuals, especially in the wake of the Holocaust. Among the prominent supporters of the American League for a Free Palestine were the comedian Carl Reiner, Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers, the actor Vincent Price–who chaired the League’s annual dinner in Los Angeles–and rising young political stars such as Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis. James Roosevelt, eldest son of the late president, served as chairman of the League’s West Coast division. A number of prominent African-Americans were also among its backers, including U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and writer Langston Hughes.
“A Flag Is Born” began with a four-week run on Broadway, which was extended to 10 weeks because of the enormous public response. The London Evening Standard expressed horror that large audiences were going in droves to view what it called “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States.” American publications were somewhat more objective: Time magazine called the play “colorful theater and biting propaganda,” while Life complimented its “wit and wisdom.”
After Broadway, “Flag” was supposed to be staged at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. But Hecht and 32 other playwrights had just announced they would not permit their works to be performed at the National and other Washington theaters that barred African-Americans. Thus the Washington engagement was rescheduled for the Maryland Theater in Baltimore, and a special train car brought 18 U.S. Senators and a number of foreign diplomats to Baltimore for the February 1947 event.
But the controversy was far from over. The Maryland Theater did not bar African-Americans, but it did restrict them to the balcony, which bigots nicknamed “n—-r heaven.” Alerted by local NAACP activists, Hecht and his colleagues in the American League for a Free Palestine fashioned a “good cop-bad cop” strategy. Just hours before the first curtain, the League’s leaders went to the Maryland Theater management with a plea and a warning: rescind the seating discrimination, or the NAACP would picket the show with signs declaring, “There is No Difference Between Jim Crow in Maryland and Persecution [of Jews] in Palestine.” League officials also threatened that they would personally escort several African-Americans to the show as their guests, to be seated in the regular sections.
The pressure succeeded. The Maryland Theater management agreed to recognize the American League for a Free Palestine as the “lessee of the theater” for the duration of the run, making its ticket agents League employees, subject to whatever seating policy the League chose to adopt. A dozen African-Americans attended the opening night performance on February 12, 1947–Lincoln’s Birthday–and “were seated indiscriminately, without untoward results,” the Baltimore Afro-American reported.
Exuberant NAACP leaders hailed the “tradition-shattering victory” won by the alliance of black and Zionist activists against theater discrimination. And the NAACP used that victory as potent ammunition its battles to desegregate other Baltimore theaters in the years to follow. “I am proud that it was my play which terminated one of the most disgraceful practices of our country’s history,” a beaming Ben Hecht declared after the opening performance in Baltimore. “To fight discrimination and injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group.”
Some may be surprised that not just liberal Jews, but also Bergson group activists, fought for black civil rights. Yet today too, in the recent firestorm over Trent Lott’s pro-segregation comment, many Jewish conservatives, such as William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, spoke out quickly and forcefully, helping to bring about Lott’s ouster. Today, as in 1947, no one segment of American Jewry has a monopoly on opposition to racism.