What role have Jews historically played in the civil rights movement?
Jews in the United States have a long and proud history of advocating on the behalf of others. Our own history has taught us about the importance of respecting the fundamental rights of all people.
In particular, Jews have played an important role in championing the right of African-Americans. Kivie Kaplan, a vice-chairman of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Reform Jewish leaders were arrested with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the aegis of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which for decades was located in the same building.
In the summer of 2015, the Reform Jewish community participated in the NAACP's Journey for Justice. Led by the efforts of Rabbi Seth Limmer and Chicago Sinai Congregation, nearly 200 Reform Jewish activists – most of them rabbis – joined the NAACP in an historic 860-mile march from Selma, AL, to Washington, D.C., carrying a Torah on foot the entire way. Together, they marched to advance a national agenda that protects the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. At an NAACP rally in Raleigh, NC, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, told the crowd, “There is no question that the march represented the very best of our nation and of our Movement.”
Jewish communities today continue to work on behalf of the civil rights, not only of people of color, but of women, people with disabilities and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.