The Torch has passed—but to whom?

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In today’s bitterly divisive political climate, alliances that were once enduring appear to have grown increasingly estranged from one another. A couple of recent events occurring within weeks of each other are reminders of the once solid relationship between African-Americans and American Jews in the common struggle against bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism and sexism. These events should remind us not only of what once was, but the urgent need to revive this historical partnership based on mutual goals and trust. 

On Nov. 21, Frankie Muse Freeman became only the second African-American to have a publically dedicated statue in St. Louis. Freeman was a towering figure in the American civil rights movement, an attorney who won a landmark 1954 case that banned discrimination in public housing, and a former member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Freeman, who reached her 101st birthday a few days after she was honored, was present for the occasion. She told the crowd, “I did the best I could,” when she was asked to sum up her remarkable career.

Freeman has been a stalwart friend of the local Jewish community throughout her long career in law and civil rights. She has participated for several decades in the African-American-Jewish Dialogue Group, co-sponsored by the Urban League and the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council. In 2011, National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis honored Freeman with the organization’s Hannah G. Solomon Founders Award. She spoke at an American Jewish Congress dinner and praised the work of Kivie Kaplan, a Jewish activist who suggested that the NAACP institute lifetime memberships as a means of building ongoing financial and volunteer support.

Among those who contributed funds to pay for the Freeman statue are several prominent members of the St. Louis Jewish community, including Maxine Clark and Bob Fox and Sam and Marilyn Fox. 

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Freeman’s other awards and honors are too numerous to mention, but they include the Brotherhood-Sisterhood Award from the National Conference for Community and Justice. In addition, she was the featured speaker at the Jewish Community Center’s Liberal Forum and events sponsored by the JCRC, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League.

Another iconic figure in the local and national civil rights movement was Sister Mary Antona Ebo. She was called the “Sister of Selma” for having marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other

religious leaders in the historic 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Ala., She remained active in promoting human rights throughout the protests that ensued in 2014 after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Sister Ebo died Nov. 11, at the age of 93, at a retirement home in Bridgeton.

Marching alongside Sister Ebo in those civil rights marches were several prominent members of the local Jewish community, including the late Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman, the late Rabbi Bernard Lipnick and the late Bill Kahn, longtime director of the Jewish Community Center and later the Jewish Federation.

During the long careers of Freeman and Sister Ebo, the partnership between the African-American and American-Jewish communities was rock solid. The goodwill built up between the two groups back then could withstand incendiary, potentially destructive incidents, including comments from leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson when he referred to New York City as “Hymietown,” as well as the death of a young African-American child in Crown Heights, N.Y. when he was killed by a driver in a motorcade for the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Rebbe of the Chabad movement. Tension ran high in both cases, but eventually cooler heads prevailed and both blacks and Jews could find their footing together again.

There are, of course, numerous positive examples of cooperation today between Jews and African Americans.  Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation has cultivated close relations with leaders in the African-American church community. On major social issues, the African-American and Jewish communities are by and large on the same page of seeking justice for all.

In the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson and the decision not to indict Officer Jason Stockley in the city of St. Louis earlier this year, it has become more challenging for some members of each community to know how to work together. The Black Lives Matter Movement is respected and supported by many within the Jewish community as a fully legitimate reaction to the contagion of officer-involved shootings of black youth. But Black Lives Matter demonstrators have on occasion chanted anti-police slogans, which some find off-putting and extreme.  

The effort by some within the left end of the Jewish community to co-opt African-American groups in anti-Israel movements under the banner of “intersectionality” is also a source of unease within the Jewish community.

We cannot base intergroup and interfaith relations on nostalgia for the “good old days,” when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and many other Jews marched with King.  We need new approaches to meet present and future challenges.  

The Jewish community has a duty to build upon its foundation of cooperation with the African-American community based on mutual trust and a genuine set of shared values.

This is how we can honor the legacy of people like Frankie Freeman and Sister Ebo.  They looked forward to a better society.  We need to re-commit to their idealism from the basis of crises, which now confront our total community.