A Supremely Delicate Problem: Southern Rabbis Face Desegregation During the Civil Rights Movement
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Despite the opinion of many historians, research reveals that southern rabbis played a role not previously considered. While southern rabbinical involvement was distinctly different from that in the North, it was not insignificant. The approach used by some southern rabbis makes it clear that there were strong feelings about civil rights, but action for change was subtler than the public way of the North. Southern rabbis for the most part supported civil rights privately, within their congregations, and those who did speak out implemented the strategy of gradualism. Southern rabbis felt that within the southern society to which they and their congregants wanted so desperately to belong, subtle and gradual approaches to civil rights were the best way for them to get involved. These approaches would be less likely to draw immediate negative attention in their wider communities and would also reduce the risk of angry backlashes by their racist neighbors. In addition there was significant disagreement on the part of virtually all southern rabbis with the confrontational approach that the northern civil rights leaders implemented. Southern rabbis also had to contend with the fact that many in their own congregations did not support any effort by their rabbis to promote desegregation; some congregants did not personally support desegregation and almost all congregants wanted their rabbis to avoid public controversy. But the southern rabbis' gradual and subtle strategy was not recognized by activists in the North who tended to be interested in immediate and dramatic change.