Fannie Lou Hamer and the Holocaust
The relation between a couple of reviews in the New York Times struck me. In a review of two books about Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the great organizers of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Jill Watts commented that the 1966 defeat and replacement of the “integrationist leadership [of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] … by Black nationalist members … triggered the group’s decline and drained much needed external support from Hamer’s local crusades.” On the preceding page in the hard copy, Yaniv Iczkovitz criticizes the search for “universal lessons in lieu of attending to the actual persecution of Jews” in the Holocaust. Those two reviews take opposite views of the balance between engaging allies and taking ownership of our own groups’ struggles.
I understand the need to take over one’s movement. Popular movements need to keep changing; moving the goal posts keeps up the excitement and loyalty. But the very point of popular movements is the audience. Strategies that forget their audience lose their way.
My wife and I had the privilege of meeting Fanny Lou Hamer when I was a Legal Aid attorney in St. Louis. One of my clients was an organization called Black Survival. As its name suggested, it was an organization of and by African-Americans. We respected and sought each other’s views and worked out a strategy together. None of us evaluated, let alone discounted, each other’s suggestions based on the color of our skin. In court, I necessarily had a leading role. In other formal settings, I was often used as window dressing, a role I understood and did my best to play. Gathering signatures door-to-door on a very successful petition drive was their job. Our goal was very public – to prevent construction of a highway that would have split businesses, professionals and churches from their patrons, clients and congregations, destroying many of the most constructive aspects of their community – consequences they instinctively understood but consequences for which it was my job to amass numerous white PhDs for documentation and support. Our battle was advanced at a meeting with the Mayor in front of the cameras, and eventually resolved in our favor by the Nixon Administration. Allies mattered.
Like many minorities, Jews often share the instinct to emphasize differences rather than commonalities. To many Jews, the Holocaust was unique and uniquely bad. Tragically, that’s false. Genocidal struggles have been despoiling humanity both before and after the Holocaust with great regularity. The Holocaust can be a window into the struggles of humankind, an avenue for common revulsion and a path to brotherhood and common humanity. That would be better both for humanity in general and for Jews specifically. For many Christian theologians, the tragedy of the Holocaust included the horrendous misbehavior of self-professed Christian peoples and countries. That understanding, not our unique self-understanding, has been the basis for subsequent progress here, in Western Europe, and other parts of the world.
Am I too naïve in hoping that the world will again march toward brotherhood?
— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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