by Dr. Rafael Medoff and Benyamin Korn
Too few Americans are aware of the Langston Hughes Centenary being commemorated this year, but Hughes’s name was back in the headlines last week, with the release of previously unknown transcripts from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings at which Hughes and others were relentlessly questioned.
The now-revealed transcripts recorded a series of secret, closed sessions that Senator McCarthy held prior to his public hearings on alleged Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. In one of those closed sessions, Hughes was grilled by McCarthy’s staff about whether his book Scottsboro Limited, “follows the Communist Party line.”
Scottsboro Limited, published in 1932, was a collection of four short poems and a play, in verse, about the nine black youths falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama. The book was used to raise money for the youth’s legal defense.
The Scottsboro case highlighted the emerging political alliance between blacks and Jews, an alliance in which Hughes would play an important role that is not well remembered today.
Not only were their principal attorneys Jewish, but Jewish leaders vigorously supported the Scottsboro youths, the Yiddish-language press rallied to their defense, and many Jews took part in public protests on their behalf.
Indicative of the early and widespread Jewish interest in the problem of racial discrimination against blacks is the very first panel in the recent traveling museum exhibit “Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews”: it displays a 1930s book of Yiddish-language children’s poetry, opened to a page containing Hughes’s “I, Too, Sing America,” a searing poem about the mistreatment of African-Americans.
But while Jewish participation in the civil rights movement is well known, few remember the support given by prominent African-Americans –including Langston Hughes– to the 1940s Jewish causes of rescuing Jews from the Holocaust and creating a Jewish state.
This often-overlooked 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.
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. By that time, it was already known that the Nazis had murdered over two million Jews–but millions more could still be saved.
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.
After the war, Bergson’s group led political action campaigns to mobilize American public support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Bergson’s efforts 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, including labor union leader A. Philip Randolph; W.E.B. DuBois, the leading African-American intellectual of his era; and the famous black singer, actor, and political activist Paul Robeson, who was one of the stars of a Madison Square Garden “Show of Shows” organized by Bergson to raise money for his campaign to rescue Jewish refugees.
Langston Hughes, for his part, 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, challenged 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. It is noteworthy that one of the members of the panel on “Public Opinion” was Walter White, executive director of the NAACP.
Several years later, the Bergson group collaborated with Walter White and the NAACP to 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 (his credits included ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’), 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.”
As we commemorate the Langston Hughes Centenary this year, it is worth remembering that long before the civil rights alliance of the 1950s-1960s African-Americans and Jewish Americans joined hands on behalf of rescuing Holocaust refugees and establishing a Jewish state. That, too, is an important part of the legacy of Langston Hughes.