A Zionist Episode in a Civil Rights Pioneer’s Life

by Rafael Medoff

Dovey Johnson Roundtree was an unsung civil rights activist and attorney whose groundbreaking work was the subject of a front-page feature in the New York Times this week, following her death at age 104. What the Times did not know was that Ms. Roundtree was also part of a remarkable alliance of Zionists and African-American activists who won a landmark victory over racial segregation in 1940s Baltimore.

This is a story that began in the autumn of 1946, when the Zionist activists known as the Bergson Group created 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” was a play with an unabashed political mission: to draw attention to 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.” The American press took a different view: Life complimented its “wit and wisdom,” while Time called the play “colorful theater and biting propaganda.”

“Flag” enjoyed a successful 10-week run on Broadway. The producers then prepared to organize performances around the country—except in segregated venues. “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.

As a result, an initial plan to stage the play at the whites-only National Theater in Washington, D.C., was scrapped, and the Maryland Theater, in Baltimore, was chosen as its replacement. A train car was secured to bring 18 U.S. Senators and a number of foreign diplomats to Baltimore for the February 1947 event. What the Bergson Group didn’t realize was that while the Maryland Theater did admit African-Americans, it restricted them to the balcony, which bigots nicknamed “n—-r heaven.”

Civil rights activists in the 1940s utilized a variety of tactics to oppose theater discrimination, from lawsuits to picket lines. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, Jewish newspaper editor Harry Golden made headlines with his “Rent-a-Child” scheme: it 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.

In Baltimore, they tried a different strategy: good cop-bad cop. Alerted by local NAACP activists, Bergson officials informed the theater management that if its seating discrimination policy was not rescinded, 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 fact that the performance was scheduled for February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, would magnify the impact of the protests.

The pressure succeeded. The Maryland Theater management agreed to recognize the Bergson Group as the “lessee of the theater” for the evening. That made the theater’s ticket agents employees of the Bergson Group and subject to whatever seating policy the activists chose to adopt. Who would be the first African-American to test the new policy?  Enter Dovey Johnson Roundtree.

Raised in an impoverished North Carolina family that had been victimized by white racist violence, Dovey grew up determined to break both racial barriers and glass ceilings. In 1942, she was one of a handful of young African-American women who enlisted in the newly-created Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Risking court-martial, she successfully fought to desegregate the mess hall at her Iowa training facility. On one occasion, she was forced to get off a city bus after refusing to give up her seat to a white marine.

Early 1947 found Roundtree working in the Baltimore area for a group combating racial discrimination in employment. But that was temporary; she was saving her money to go to law school—not exactly a common professional trajectory for young African-American women at the time.

Given her interests, perhaps it’s not surprising that she would find herself in the thick of the controversy over “A Flag is Born.” Chronicling the dramatic events surrounding the February 12 performance, the local weekly newspaper The Afro-American reported that the first person to break the the theater’s infamous racial barrier was “Mrs. Dovie Roundtree, a WAC captain.”

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.

Later that year, Dovey Roundtree became one of just five women to be admitted to the Howard University law school. Upon graduating, she was the first African-American admitted to Washington, DC’s Women’s Bar Association. That began a career of courtroom battles on behalf of victims of racism, including a 1955 suit by Roundtree that brought about the desegregation of interstate bus travel—a year before the famous Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks.

Of course, on that dramatic evening in February 1947, when Dovey Roundtree stepped into the Maryland Theater to shatter the racial barrier by attending a Zionist play, nobody could imagine the illustrious career on which she was about to embark. The Jewish and African-American activists were just glad that they had achieved an important victory for a cause they both held dear.

“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.”

(As published in the Washington Jewish Week – May 30, 2018)