The front page of the 1968 issue of J. immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The front page of the 1968 issue of J. immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK first graced our pages in 1957, but civil rights coverage went back decades

“Men learn slowly and at heavy cost. The situation in Montgomery is a sad example.”

These words came from the editors of our paper on Jan. 18, 1957. Shots had been fired at buses in Montgomery, Alabama, following racial integration on public transportation. The article marked the first time that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was mentioned in our pages.

The item continued:

“Recent events in Montgomery, Alabama, where desegregation of bus riders has just occurred, provide a shocking example of man’s inhumanity to man, pointing up in bold contrast the behavior of white citizens and that of Negroes victorious in their fight against segregation,” we wrote. “Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court’s order outlawing bus segregation became known in Montgomery, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had led the long boycott of the Negroes against Jim Crow buses, went into action.”

Jewish involvement in the fight for civil rights for Black Americans has been documented in books, films and scholarly works. In the laudatory pieces written by Jewish authors, the focus has usually been on the support Jews showed during that struggle as allies.

A political cartoon that appeared in J. in 1957. (J. Archives)
A political cartoon that appeared in J. in 1957. (J. Archives)

The picture is certainly more complex, but it’s true that the tone of this paper during the 1950s and 1960s was strongly in favor of civil rights, from a moral perspective more than any other reason. Often there was a dusting of self-congratulation for the purity of Jewish ethics (though there certainly were racist Jews). But when the paper discussed civil rights, it was almost always in full support.

In September 1963, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders attended a conference in San Francisco to discuss “Negro rights.” Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, a visiting Reform luminary who became close to King and spoke at his 1968 funeral, took a firm line.

“Discrimination and prejudice against Negroes are merely symptoms of fundamental ills in our society. … Hatred of the Negro is an expression of a white man’s hatred of any man, of every man, including himself,” Hirsch said during a speech at the conference.

That same month, Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame rang out with King’s own words, by proxy.

“‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ will be read at the Sabbath eve service of Peninsula Temple Sholom Friday evening, Sept. 20,” we wrote. “This Sabbath is the Sabbath of Repentance. The congregation will be asked to offer repentance for acts of commission or of omission with relation to the Negro population of the United States.”

This publication’s concerns over the civil rights of Black Americans didn’t start with the bus boycott or with King, though.

In 1909, we ran an article headlined “The rights of the colored people.”

“During the life of the American nation the problem of the political and social position of the colored people has been constantly before it,” wrote Eugene B. Block, who later became editor of this publication.

“To the Jew the protection and fair treatment of the negro should be both sacred and vital,” he added. “It is the Jew who stands as the guardian of the colossal doctrine of the equality of man.” That’s a grandiose claim but one with its heart in the right place.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments ratified after the Civil War — which ended slavery and promised Black Americans equal rights as citizens — were still a matter of living memory when Block wrote those words.

Despite his pompous language, Block was specific: “Perhaps no Federal laws have fallen further in their purpose than have the constitutional amendments for the protection of the negro and the assurance of his right to vote. Although framed with the express purpose of preventing the exercise of prejudice against the negro, the amendments are being violated under cover of obedience in letter, and the race, in consequence, is deprived of its legal rights.”

Then a reporter for a different newspaper in the city, Block was just 18 when he wrote those words in our publication in 1909. A constant advocate for social justice, he noted in a column nearly four decades later that he was a member of the NAACP.

RELATED: How Jews of color have shown up (or not) in this newspaper over the decades

Block wasn’t the only voice in our pages advocating for empathy and for civil rights. Our “Editorial Comment” in 1923 discussed Black flight from the South.

“Our Jewish citizens, as the perpetual victims of prejudice, must certainly, when not swayed by local sentiment, sympathize with the troubles of our colored fellow citizens, as emphasized by such an exodus. The American people cannot be truly free so long as they allow racial and like prejudices to govern their conduct,” we wrote.

This seems like full-throated support. But in 1963, San Franciscan Jay Darwin wrote a memo in our paper about his trip to the White House, where then-President John F. Kennedy convened experts to discuss civil rights. Darwin warned that San Francisco shouldn’t be self-congratulatory or complacent about interracial relations and that such tensions could rise here too.

“We are deluded by the oft repeated phrases ‘It cannot happen here’ and that ‘This is the city that knows how,’” he wrote. “The lessons which the Negro communities have learned from successes achieved through demonstrations makes it almost impossible to expect that San Francisco will be spared such.”

The answer to avoiding potential problems, he proposed, were solution-oriented “bi-racial” groups that would include Jews.

“I hope that the Jewish community will not fail in such an endeavor, for we have the tradition for such community action,” he said.

That expectation continued. Through the 1950s and 1960s, we reported on panels about racial issues, synagogue speakers on minority rights and Jews who joined civil rights marches.

But then, of course, came the assassination.

On April 12, 1968, our front page carried local reaction to the death of the civil rights icon with the headline: “Outpouring Of Grief from World Jewry For King.”

Among the statements from regional Jewish groups was this from Rabbi Morton Hoffman of the Northern California Board of Rabbis: “The white racist society … has persisted because we have either been timid, or insensitive, or have wanted it thus. Were we to have lived up to … religious ideals to which we pay lip service. Dr. King’s final sacrifice would not have been necessary.”

Rabbi Saul White, who led San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom for 40 years and was a civil rights activist, offered these grave words:

“We all share a measure of guilt in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to trouble the conscience of America in its responsibilities towards justice and equality for the Negro community and did so by methods of nonviolence…Unless we destroy Racism it will destroy us.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.