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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, Jule 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.

In 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.

Like her 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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Discussion Questions

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 railroad. Read 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 of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary 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?

3. During Mississippi's 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 or professionally?

Writer: Christina L. Davis                                              
Editors and Researchers: Christina L. Davis, Lavada Dillard, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill                                                         Web Site Designer: William Weems

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