Supporting Civil Rights for All

25, May 2017

Not long ago, the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center and the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives developed an exhibition called Standing for Justice. The first part (1930–1950) focused on anti-Semitism and discrimination against the St. Louis Jewish community in everything from housing and employment to swimming-pool access and the Red Scare. Material for the follow-up exhibition (1950–1980) revealed a gradual change in focus in the post-WWII-era Jewish community, one that strongly involved fighting for the civil rights of all people.

Words and Deeds

Black-and-white photo of Ruth Seals and Sam KleinRuth Seals and Sam Klein, 1944. Photo by Day Photographers, St. Louis. Image courtesy of the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives, Sam Klein Collection.

As with any community, not every Jew in St. Louis supported involvement in the nation’s growing civil rights crusade, but many stepped forward and made their voices heard. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, national president of the American Jewish Congress, summed up the majority opinion in 1959 by saying that “a Jew cannot fight for his civil rights as a member of a minority unless he also fights for other minorities.” Later, at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rabbi Prinz stated:

The greatest crime is not oppression. The greatest tragedy is not inhuman brutality. The greatest crime and the greatest tragedy is silence, to be silent in the presence of oppression and brutality.

Sam Klein was a St. Louisan who let his actions speak as loudly as Rabbi Prinz’s words. As head of the fashion company Mary Muffet, Inc., Klein hired Ruth Seals, an African American, as a secretary in 1941. Klein, who had served on the board of the local Urban League branch for several years, once noted “I have always believed that any person of talent and ability should be given an opportunity to use it.” When one staff member, herself a young German refugee, tried to spread rumors and antipathy toward Seals, Klein fired her. He said he saw her attitude and refugee status inconsistent with her resentment toward an American citizen. The next year, at the height of suspicion of foreigners in time of war, Klein again showed how he practiced tolerance by hiring two young women of Japanese descent to work in his factory alongside workers of German and Italian heritage.

Rabbi Isserman

Black-and-white photo of Rabbi IssermanRabbi Ferdinand Isserman. Image courtesy of the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives, Temple Israel Collection.

Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman also condemned discrimination. In early 1947 he spoke out in support of actor-singer Paul Robeson, who had joined Henry Winfield Wheeler in picketing the American Theatre downtown to protest its policy of segregated seating. The month before, Rabbi Isserman had addressed the graduating class at Vashon High School. Instead of giving the “what you can do now” speech typically given by graduation speakers, he discussed a litany of injustices experienced by the African American community and encouraged the current march of moral values in support of civil rights for all.

He also singled out the Bar Association of St. Louis for rejecting the application of a young black attorney named Sidney Redmond and the St. Louis Medical Association for conducting similar actions. Although these associations represented “learned men,” Rabbi Isserman stated that:

Greater knowledge does not lead itself to better conduct. The knowledge of the heart is just as essential as the knowledge of the mind. Knowledge must be harnessed to the purposes of the Kingdom of God to advance the cause of humanity.

Marchers and More

Black-and-white photo of Selma marchers restingParticipants in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery pause to rest. Photo by Peter Pettus. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Others from the Jewish community lent their support, voices, and actions as the civil rights movement went into high gear in the early 1960s. One of these was Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman, of United Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi Grollman believed in living a meaningful Jewish life and the survival of Jews everywhere—which meant human and civil rights for all. He participated in both the 1963 Washington march and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, later sharing his experiences with his congregation and others through his sermons and writings.

Bernard Lipnick, of B’nai Amoona, covered Israel’s fight for independence as a radio newsman in the 1940s and took to heart all that stood for. Upon his return to the United States, he became a rabbi. He too marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and again in Selma in 1965, where he not only spoke but also helped protect Sister Antona Ebo from attack. Like many others in the Jewish community, he and his family were threatened because of his advocacy, but he didn’t let this deter him from what he saw as a moral and ethical battle.

Another supporter and participant in civil rights was William Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Center Association (JCCA). He was one of hundreds who traveled from St. Louis to Washington, DC, to participate in the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was also part of the St. Louis group who joined Dr. King in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. That summer, Dr. King asked him to volunteer as a college-admissions counselor for black teenagers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a request Kahn quickly accepted.

A Lasting Reminder

Scanned newspaper photos showing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at the former United Hebrew templePhotos from the Jewish Light newspaper showing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at the former United Hebrew temple on November 27, 1960. Sidney Strauss, chairman of the Liberal Forum committee, is shown on the bottom right. Image courtesy of the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives.

The story of civil rights includes actions both large and small, from loudly acknowledging the rights of all to quietly offering a tired soul some rest. When Dr. King visited St. Louis in November 1960 as a speaker for the JCCA’s Liberal Forum, it was quickly apparent that the JCCA’s auditorium wouldn’t be large enough to hold the audience. Rabbi Grollman and the United Hebrew Congregation generously offered to host Dr. King and the lecture at their temple on Skinker Boulevard (now home to MHM’s Library and Research Center).

Dr. King had arrived late in the afternoon and was on a rigorous speaking schedule. With brief time between dinner and his speech, Rabbi Grollman suggested Dr. King rest and offered him use of the recliner upstairs in his study. Dr. King took him up on the offer, and Rabbi Grollman never got rid of that recliner. It remains at United Hebrew and is placed on the bimah in honor and celebration of Dr. King’s birthday on January 15 each year.  

—Diane Everman, Archivist for the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives

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