by Rafael Medoff
For the American Jewish community, the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is an occasion to recall the historic bonds between African-Americans and American Jews–bonds forged in alliances for important causes, unique cultural collaborations and, sadly, in their common fate as victims of racism and persecution.
That shared fate is symbolized in two stunning editorial cartoons by Edmund Duffy that appeared in the Baltimore Sun in the 1930s. Duffy (1899-1962), a New Jersey native, studied at the legendary Art Students’ League school in New York City, where he developed his signature charcoal-style technique. In 1924, Duffy landed the position of editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun, a post he held for the next twenty-four years. During that period, Duffy won the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning three times, a feat that only five cartoonists in American history have achieved.
The Sun’s editor, H.L. Mencken, once said of Duffy, “Give me a good cartoonist and I can throw out half the editorial staff.” Duffy did not hesitate to tackle controversial issues or champion unpopular causes. After the lynching of a young African-American man, Matthew Williams, in Salisbury, Maryland in December 1931, Duffy drew a cartoon depicting Williams’s body dangling from a tree. He titled it “Maryland, My Maryland,” a sarcastic reference to the state’s anthem. Salisbury residents erupted in anger against “the wicked cartoonist,” overturning the Sun’s delivery trucks and assaulting the drivers.
Eight years later, Duffy turned his attention to another downtrodden minority group. During the first week of June 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, with 930 German Jewish refugees aboard, hovered off the coast of Florida, hoping President Roosevelt would permit them to land. On June 4, Duffy’s daily cartoon, titled “The Wandering Jew,” took that medieval antisemitic legend and turned it on its head, showing the classic image of the ‘wandering Jew,’ hunched over, dressed in rags, clutching a walking staff–but he was coming out of the smokestack of the St. Louis. These desperate Jewish refugees, wandering from country to country in search of a haven, were the real ‘wandering Jews.’
Very few American editorial cartoonists were willing to challenge racist lynch mobs. Very few cartoonists showed any interest in the plight of Jews fleeing Hitler. Edmund Duffy was a rare man of conscience.
Duffy passed away on September 13, 1962. Ironically, it was the same day that Mississippi governor Ross Barnett delivered his infamous speech vowing that “no school in our state will be integrated.” Barnett’s racism was a part of the bitter past against which Edmund Duffy had fought; Martin Luther King’s vision was the future that most Americans embraced. Less than a year later, Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and less than a year after that, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 became the law of the land.
Dr. King’s birthday is an occasion to reflect on those momentous events, and on the courageous men and women from all walks of life –editorial cartoonists included– who helped bring them about.