Jewish Americans in Rome's Civil Rights Movement
Through the commitment and effort of ordinary people no longer
willing to tolerate the insults and injustices of Jim Crow society,
changes came to Rome's racial caste system. Jule and Rose
Levin, members of Rome’s Jewish American community, publicly and
privately supported interracial efforts to foster social
change. A native of Cincinnati,
Gordon Levin arrived in Rome as
a traveling salesman. In 1940, he married Rose Esserman,
whose family owned a retail store in the
heart of the downtown shopping district.
Levin also participated actively
in civic and community affairs. He worked to promote more humane
attitudes and progressive policies toward African American citizens.
Esserman’s was the first store in Rome to use an honorific, "Mr." or "Mrs.,"
to address black Romans. Usually adult black customers were recognized
disrespectfully or informally by their first names, regardless of
their ages. Esserman’s was also Rome's first downtown store to employ
an African American salesperson to wait on both white and
black customers. Levin had persuaded Esserman's to rank civil rights
over the potential economic boycotts or media backlashes the company
risked from prejudiced white clients who opposed integration. Along
with Randall Minor, President of Shorter
College, Levin was very involved with the Rome Chamber of
Commerce, which had asked them to speak at the Sibley
Commission hearings on its behalf.
As president of the Chamber of Commerce, Levin worked to convince
conservative business leaders that desegregation served the best
interests of all Romans. He spoke at Class Day at the all-black
Main High School, and initiated the school’s first Career Day, an
event previously limited to white high-school students. His
involvement in the Chamber of Commerce proved key to a communications
network that facilitated Rome's student sit-ins.
late March of 1963, students in Rome joined the national wave of
civil rights activism by directly challenging the city's segregated
facilities. African American students from Main High requested services
at segregated lunch counters in downtown Rome. After the restaurants
denied their requests, police arrested sixty-two of
the protesters. Although some members of the 1963
sit-in do not remember any adults who were involved
in the protest, older community members did know about the youths’
plans. Levin's participation in a secret communications
system meant that students, parents, and Main High principal C.
W. Aycock could stay informed of law enforcement’s agenda for responding
to the sit-ins.
husband, Rose Levin cultivated improved race relations in Rome.
Her work with the Georgia Council of Human Relations alerted Levin
to the inequalities between black and white Romans. She and other
council members, such as Franziska
Marie Boas, youngest child of
the famed anthropologist Franz
Boas, attended biracial meetings,
worshipped in black churches, and fought against school closings
during the crisis of school integration.
Documenting the history of Rome's Civil Rights Movement is possible
in large part to the efforts of the Levins. Rose Levin's unpublished
memoir, penned in 1988, alerts visitors to the Rome
Area History Museum of little known aspects of the civil
rights history of city. The Levins's daughter, Ann P. Levin, and
her husband Larry Beeferman commemorate her parent's legacy
with the Rose
Esserman Levin and Jule Gordon Levin Fund for Social Justice,
established in 1993.
Each year this fund named for the Levins honors a graduating high-school
senior in Rome who is commtted to social action.
The involvement of Jewish Americans in Rome's civil rights activism
is an important reminder that the Civil
Rights Movement meant to
eradicate social inequalities among more groups than whites and
blacks. The leadership of Jews and Native Americans in civil rights
efforts that extended through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s has helped
to call attention to the significance of reconsidering the South
and Southwest outside of the binaries of blacks and whites. Jews
in the South during the Jim Crow era were also visible outsiders
who faced biases because of religious and cultural differences.
To some, their marginalization
provided ample reasons for them to forge alliances with African
Americans who suffered from discrimination.
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1. The secret communications system that the Levins helped organize
in order to anticipate police responses suggests an earlier, hidden
system designed to resist oppression: the underground
the description at the PBS
web site on the history of the underground
railroad. This nineteenth-century "railroad" featured
the involvement of both white and free black "conductors," of
northerners and southerners, of Americans and Canadians. How do these
biracial collaborations suggest the merits of Jewish/African American
alliances during the Movement? By what means did members of the underground
railroad communicate with each other, and what similar secret strategies
might have benefited Rome's activists?
2. Although African Americans in the early twentieth century rarely
testified against white people in southern courts, Jim Conley, an
African American janitor, was a key witness in the 1913 conviction
Frank for the murder
Phagan. As superintendent of Atlanta's National Pencil Company
at which Phagan worked, prosecutors named Frank as their prime suspect.
Many Americans at this time considered Jewish people to be members
of an ethnic group that differed from those that other whites belonged
to. Read this article on Leo Frank in the New
Georgia Encyclopedia. What effects, positive and negative,
do you think Conley’s testimony might have had on black-Jewish
relations in the South?
Freedom Summer (1964), when hundreds of college students came
South to help in voter registration and literacy campaigns, opponents
to the Movement murdered Michael
Schwerner and Andrew
Goodman, two Jewish American civil rights
activists from New York, along with African American activist James
Chaney. The triple murder both highlighted the
importance of alliances between African Americans and
Jewish Americans and increased anti-Semitism in the South.
In the wake of the killings, Dr.
King praised the efforts of Jewish
Americans in the Civil
Rights Movement, and he encouraged audiences to make a distinction
between those from the North, like Goodman and Schwerner, who worked
openly to affect civil rights, and Jews in the South who may have
been reluctant to make their activism visible. What do you think
accounts for Levin's willingness to make his
activism visible? What risks did he and other Jewish American reformers
face for taking public stands against racism?
Take it to the Streets!
Read the article “White
Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy
McIntosh. Then as a class, line up in back of the room and
ask the instructor to read aloud each of the points on McIntosh's “daily
effects of white privilege” list. Take one step forward each
time you answer “yes” to a question. At the end of the exercise,
discuss the influence white privilege has on the ability of those
to reach the front of the room first. Discuss the effects race, gender,
sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status have on a
person’s ability to succeed in America. What additonal characteristics
might enhance or limit an American's ability to advance educationally
Writer: Christina L. Davis
and Researchers: Christina L. Davis, Lavada Dillard, Mary Boyce Hicks,
and Professor Barbara McCaskill Web
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