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Civil Rights II
Rabbi Gerald Wolpe
I learned a tremendous amount when I was here. The city was changing, and, of course, it was right in the middle of the 1950s, and there were one or two people who were absolute segregationists. There were some who were emotionally segregationist, even though they were uneasy with this position. And it was a daily issue here in Charleston, and when I preached a sermon, I had to think very carefully about trigger words. The Jewish community was vulnerable at that point. It was small. You know, on the one side the black community was threatening to boycott Jewish stores if they didn’t take this position; yet on the other hand white citizen groups were saying, “Hey wait a minute. You’ve been here five generations. How come you don’t think the same way as we do?” It was an interesting experience for me to learn how to be definite about things yet at the same time not create problems for the people who I’m supposed to serve.
The first grammar school I went to was the William Lloyd Garrison School. I mean, what greater symbolism can you have? You know, it’s the abolitionist coming from an abolitionist school to South Carolina, where it was not an easy time. We would have people come in from up North, Jewish speakers, and it was very easy for them to come and be bombastic—“This is what you have to do”—and then get back on the train and go back to New York, leaving us to clean up the remnant and clean up the debris. And I began to get a very strange feeling even though in no way did I want to compromise my feeling that integration was moral and segregation was evil, but sometimes the absolute position destroys the morality of what you’re trying to do. And for that reason I think I stopped being an absolutist in many, many ways. I saw how people could be just destroyed—blacks, Jews, others, by taking an uncompromising—“This is the right way of doing it; it’s the only way of doing it.” I learned that in Charleston.
There was this sense that that rage was just below the surface and you tried everything you can to keep this a civilized society, but if that rage spilled over, there was no telling what would happen. And it was there; it was definitely there.
You know, I’ll never forget, I went to— One of the members of the congregation had an outlet for gasoline, and he said, “You come fill up your car here,” which was great. And there was one man who used to do a lot of the yard work there. He was one of the most powerful men I’ve ever seen in my life. He was about 6’4”, a black man, with muscles that just rippled. He could pick up these enormous weights, and he was really, really something to see, but he was treated horribly by his boss, who was a member of my congregation. I used to talk to this man, “Why do you talk to—?” “Ah, he’s a schvartzer,* what difference does it make?” It used to kill me, but I couldn’t do anything about it. And one day—this man’s name was John; I’ve never forgotten that—I went up to him and said, “John, why don’t you say something to Mr. So-and-so about the way he talks to you?” He said, “Rabbi, I can’t talk. If I addressed that problem,” he said, “I’ll kill him.”
I’d be interviewed constantly by the newspaper, by the radio, and that would be the first—“What do you Jews believe about segregation?” And I would say, “I can’t tell you what Jews believe about segregation because I haven’t interviewed every Jew, but I’ll tell you what Judaism thinks about segregation. Judaism is always color-blind. In all probability Moses was about the same shade as some of the people whom you are now sending into separate schools, so I can tell you as a professing Jew I can’t accept segregation.” And I can’t, you know—it blunted the idea that, you know, that I’m not trying to be a rabble-rouser and take this position. It was a good out.
* Black person (usually derogatory).