In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:
by Dr. Rafael Medoff
For many in the American Jewish community, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is an occasion to recall the important role that Jews played in the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. Much has been written about the later crumbling of the black-Jewish alliance over issues such as affirmative action and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But few remember the earlier alliance between Jews and prominent African-Americans, in the 1940s, on the issues of rescuing Jews from the Holocaust and creating a Jewish state.
This forgotten black-Jewish alliance was connected to a series of political action campaigns undertaken in the 1940s by an activist group led by a militant Zionist emissary from Palestine named Peter Bergson. The Bergson group was one of the first Jewish organizations to utilize such now-familiar protest tactics as full-page newspaper advertisements, public rallies, and lobbying on Capitol Hill.
The Bergson group was initially known as the Committee for a Jewish Army. From 1940 to 1943, it sought the creation of a Jewish armed force that would fight alongside the Allies against the Nazis. Eventually, the British agreed to establish the 5,000-man force, which they called the Jewish Brigade. Its soldiers fought with distinction against the Nazis during the final months of the war. The brigade’s veterans later played a crucial role in smuggling Holocaust survivors to Palestine and in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
When news of the Holocaust reached the West in late 1942 and early 1943, Bergson created the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, to press the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews from Hitler. The Emergency Committee’s dramatic tactics included full-page newspaper ads, a march by over 400 rabbis to the White House just before Yom Kippur and a Congressional resolution calling for the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees. These efforts embarrassed the administration and compelled FDR to establish the War Refugee Board, which saved an estimated 220,000 lives during the final eighteen months of the Holocaust.
Later, Bergson established the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation and the American League for a Free Palestine, which played an important role in mobilizing American public support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Bergson’s campaigns won the support of a wide array of prominent intellectuals, entertainers, Hollywood celebrities, and Members of Congress. Sympathy for the Bergson group crossed racial lines; numerous prominent African-Americans were among its supporters.
Black labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, president of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was an early backer of Bergson’s Jewish army effort. So was W.E.B. DuBois, the leading African-American intellectual of his era.
The author and poet Langston Hughes was among the sponsors of Bergson’s July 1943 Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe. The conference, which was held at in New York City, sought to counter the Roosevelt administration’s claim that rescuing Jews from Hitler was physically impossible. More than 1,500 delegates listened to panels of experts on transportation, relief methods, military affairs, and other fields, discussing specific, practical ways to save Jews from the Holocaust. One of the members of the panel on “Public Opinion” was Walter White, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The famous black singer, actor, and political activist Paul Robeson was one of the stars of a Madison Square Garden “Show of Shows” organized by Bergson in 1944 to raise money for his campaign to rescue Jewish refugees.
Several years later, Walter White and the NAACP worked closely with the Bergson group to help bring about the desegregation of theaters in Baltimore which restricted African-Americans to less desirable seats. In 1946, Bergson ally Ben Hecht, one of the most prominent screenwriters in Hollywood, authored a Broadway play called “A Flag is Born,” to rally American public sympathy for the Jewish rebels battling the British for control of Palestine. On the eve of the staging of “Flag” at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore, the Bergson group and the NAACP joined hands to pressure the theater management to abandon its discriminatory seating policy– “a tradition-shattering victory,” as White called it.
Canada Lee, one of the most prominent black actors of the 1940s, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of Harlem, the first African-American to represent New York in the U.S. House of Representatives, were supporters of Bergson’s campaign for a Jewish state in Palestine. At one Bergson group rally in 1948, Rev. Powell and the Irish-American lawyer Paul O’Dwyer stood backstage and watched while an ineffective speaker sought vainly to raise funds for Jewish statehood. “Powell became impatient,” O’Dwyer later recalled, “and whispered to me, ‘This guy is blowing it. Paul, I think this calls for a Baptist minister and an Irish revolutionary. You handle that microphone over there and I’ll handle this one.’ In unison we rose and and in unison we took the microphones gently away from [the speaker]. We collected $75,000 from the crowd that night.”
A decade before the famous black-Jewish alliance in the civil rights movement, prominent blacks and Jews joined hands to support the Bergson group’s campaigns to create a Jewish army, rescue Holocaust refugees, and establish a Jewish state. On the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday, that early collaboration between Jewish Americans and African-Americans is worth remembering.