How Zionists Helped Defeat Segregation in Baltimore

by Rafael Medoff

After a year in which Jewish-Black relations were strained by the Movement for Black Lives’ denunciation of Israel and other uncomfortable incidents, it’s worth recalling a little-known episode that points to the kind of intergroup relations that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked so hard to foster.

In the autumn of 1946, the Zionist activists known as the Bergson Group sponsored a Broadway play called “A Flag is Born,” authored by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Ben Hecht. Starring young Marlon Brando and Yiddish theater luminaries Paul Muni and Celia Adler, “Flag” depicted the plight of Holocaust survivors in postwar Europe and the fight for Jewish independence in British Mandatory Palestine.

The London Evening Standard expressed horror that large audiences were flocking to what it called “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States.” American publications took a different view: Time called the play “colorful theater and biting propaganda,” while Life complimented its “wit and wisdom.”

After a successful 10-week run on Broadway, “Flag” was scheduled to be performed in various cities around the country, including the National Theater in Washington, D.C. When the Bergson Group realized the National barred African-Americans, they quickly looked for an alternative venue.

Civil rights activists used a variety of tactics to oppose theater discrimination, from lawsuits to picket lines. In Charlotte, North Carolina, Jewish newspaper editor Harry Golden made headlines with his “Rent-a-Child” scheme, which ridiculed racist theaters by having white children accompany African-American women to the theater; the ladies were admitted on the assumption that they were the children’s nannies.

“Flag” author Ben Hecht and 32 other playwrights recently had announced they would not permit their works to be performed at theaters that barred African-Americans. The Washington engagement of “Flag” was rescheduled for the Maryland Theater in Baltimore, and a train car was secured to bring 18 U.S. Senators and a number of foreign diplomats to Baltimore for the February 1947 event.

In making the switch from Washington to Baltimore, the Bergson Group struck an important symbolic blow against racial discrimination. But as it turned out, the controversy was not over.

The Maryland Theater didn’t bar African-Americans, but it restricted them to the balcony, which bigots nicknamed “n—-r heaven.” Alerted by local NAACP activists, the Bergson Group fashioned a kind of good cop-bad cop strategy. Just hours before the first curtain, Bergson officials informed the theater management that if they did not rescind the seating discrimination, the NAACP would picket the show with signs declaring, “There is No Difference Between Jim Crow in Maryland and Persecution [of Jews] in Palestine.” The Bergsonites also threatened to 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 Bergson Group as the “lessee of the theater.” That made the theater’s ticket agents employees of the Bergson Group and subject to whatever seating policy the activists chose to adopt. A dozen African-Americans attended the opening night performance on February 12, 1947 and “were seated indiscriminately, without untoward results,” the Baltimore Afro-American reported. February 12 is, fittingly, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Exuberant NAACP leaders hailed the “tradition-shattering victory” won by the alliance of black and Zionist activists against theater discrimination. The NAACP used that victory as potent ammunition in 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. “For the first time in the history of the State of Maryland, Negroes were permitted to attend the legitimate theatre without discrimination. I am proud that it was ‘A Flag is Born’ which they attended without insult. Breaking down this vicious and indecent tradition in Maryland is worthy of the high purpose for which ‘Flag’ was conceived and written. The incident is forceful testimony to the proposition that to fight discrimination and injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group.”

January 2017