Last week, the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill setting up a procedure to pardon the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train over eighty years ago. The bill, which had unanimously passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he will sign it.
For seven years, The Scottsboro Boys endured a series of trials they could not win. All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries.The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of systematically excluding African Americans from juries.
According to the LA Times, “Advocates believe the bill is a chance to correct some of the injustices of a bleak period in the nation’s racial history as well as a chance to show that things are different in the modern South.”
This gesture by a community of legislators in 2013 is an important step for reconciliation, but I’d like to also bring attention to a community leader who showed bravery at the time of the trial: Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood apart from the crowd and stood up for his beliefs about the mistreatment of the boys.
He was the only white clergyman to visit the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” in prison and was instrumental in connecting them to a team of lawyers from International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the American Communist Party, for the appeal trial. Upon seeing the northern Jewish lawyers, the prosecuting attorney exclaimed: “Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” On Yom Kippur in 1932, Goldstein defied intimidation and defended the Scottsboro boys in his sermon.
Words like those spoken by the prosecuting attorney and Goldstein’s persistence deeply troubled Beth Or’s board of trustees. Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gunter informed board members that if Goldstein did any more to assist in the Scottsboro trials, the Ku Klux Klan would organize a boycott of Jewish businesses in the city. Without permission, Rabbi Goldstein spoke publicly at a rally for the Scottsboro Boys. In April of 1933, Beth Or’s president Ernest Mayer informed Goldstein that he either had to quit his political activities or leave. Though two board members defended Goldstein, he presented his letter of resignation to the board the following day. Some confessed anonymously to the Montgomery Advertiser that they secretly sided with Goldstein. Nevertheless, Beth Or’s board published a press release declaring the congregation’s commitment to segregation.
The Scottsboro Boys’ legal team fought hard for many years to free the innocent men, but in the end could not overcome the systemic racism of the courts or the pervasive bigotry of the culture.
Rabbi Goldstein’s leadership, even his inevitable defeat, should remind us not to accept the status quo in our communities. These pardons, eighty years in the making, come too late for the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, and injustices persist in our judicial and penal systems to this day. May the actions of Rabbi Goldstein and all of those who fight for justice inspire us to struggle for equality and freedom, both for others and for ourselves.
Had you heard of the Scottsboro Boys? Did you know about Rabbi Goldstein’s outspoken defense of them?
Over the last few months, I had the pleasure of working to put together a Southern Jewish Heritage tour for a group of Prozdor high school students from the Boston area. Using our resources and contacts in the region, we were able to create an itinerary through Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham that introduced these students not only to the South, but also to the role that Jewish communities played in this region’s history, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. Below is a story written by one of the trip participants, re-posted from Prozdor Heads South, a blog that the students collaboratively maintained during their trip.
Yesterday we visited Auburn, Alabama, and Beth Shalom – the only temple in east Alabama. We were greeted by Mike Friedman, who immediately offered us food, and lots of it. He then began to speak to us about the history of the temple, his life, and the Auburn Jewish community.
Mike repeatedly mentioned that his story was also the synagogue’s story. He is originally from New York, but throughout his life, he and his wife moved around a lot, eventually ending up in Alabama.
My favorite part of the visit was hearing about his leadership skills. The Auburn Jewish community consists of about 35 families. He was the one that got the synagogue started, but more importantly, he was the one who kept it going. He is not a “certified” rabbi, but he explained that in the sense of teaching a community, he is a rabbi.
Beth Shalom is a Reform temple, which runs services weekly. The fact that he has kept the synagogue going for years is inspirational. They hold high holiday services, Passover Seders, Purim parties, and much more.
This experience left me with a new sense of profound appreciation for the Jewish community I am surrounded by in Needham. I find that often it is easy to take advantage of the fact that we all have close knit and supportive Jewish communities back in Boston. Mike had the courage to get one going and recruit others to keep the sense of community alive.
Just before leaving, he said, and I quote, “Someone has got to lead.”
This resonated strongly with me. I often feel this way about different aspects of my life, especially USY. My chapter started out small, but we have grown into a strong and great chapter with great leaders. There is still room to grow, but the fact that we have come so far is amazing.
Personally, this was the highlight of my trip and I am grateful that Prozdor has given me this opportunity.
We are so glad that this group was able to receive true Southern hospitality from a variety of hosts along the way, and we hope they will value their experiences here for years to come. If your group is interested in creating a similar trip, you can find more information on the ISJL website.
The Workmen’s Circle—Arbeter Ring in Yiddish—is a Jewish fraternal organization devoted to progressive politics, the labor movement, and Yiddish language and culture. In its heyday, there were Workmen’s Circle chapters all across the United States, including here in the South. While most people would associate the group’s secular Yiddishkayt and left-wing politics with the more urbanized North, there were chapters in 15 Southern cities, and also chapters to be found in Florida’s urban hubs of Miami and Miami Beach.
The picture above comes from In Southern States, a Yiddish-language journal published in 1949 for the thirtieth conference of the Workmen’s Circle Southern District. In it, the leaders of Birmingham‘s Branch 303 stand on the front steps of their “lyceum” building, where the group ran a Yiddish lending library, hosted lectures and discussions, and, from 1924 to 1927, operated a Yiddish school in the afternoons.
In Birmingham, like in other cities, the founders and leaders of the Workmen’s Circle Chapter were primarily immigrants who arrived in America in the early years of the twentieth century. Most of them had belonged to the Bund in Europe, and brought their socialist beliefs with them to America. Based on this picture, it seems that Birmingham’s Branch 303 was dominated by the Sokol family, who make up more than a third of the members pictured.
If you are familiar with the Sokol family, or if you know of anyone who might have information on the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring) in Birmingham or other Southern cities, please be in touch! This is a fascinating aspect of Jewish life in the South, but it has been largely forgotten.