Not long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in 1956, Martin Luther King expressed his disappointment at the lack of support the protest had received from Alabama Jews. “The national Jewish bodies have been most helpful,” he said, “but the local Jewish leadership has been silent. Montgomery Jews want to bury their heads and repeat that it is not a Jewish problem.” He agreed with them: Segregation was not, in fact, a Jewish problem. It was a human problem. Southern Jews, he argued, should “join us on the side of justice.”
Such criticism, and from such an authority, stings, but there’s truth behind it. Jews throughout the South did not rise as fully to the cause of racial justice as they might have. Segregation, and the growing opposition to it, put many Southern Jews in a very awkward position.
As people with their own long history of persecution, Jews were inclined to sympathize with others facing prejudice. Jewish tradition, furthermore, commands justice and ethical behavior, principles at odds with the plain prejudice of segregation. Their own self-interest, too, was a motive. If Southern enmity toward another ethnic group went unchecked, couldn’t it eventually be aimed at Jews as well?
But, regardless of any sympathy they might have felt, Southern Jews were, by and large, business people whose livelihoods depended upon maintaining the good will of a white population that was predominantly segregationist. They could not afford to be perceived as radicals, and certainly not as dreaded “outside agitators.”
Texas was no different from the rest of the South. Here, names like Neiman-Marcus, Sakowitz, Sangers, Battelsteins, Joske’s, Zale’s, Frost, E.M. Kahn, and Titches are inseparable from the state’s business history. Other stores without conspicuously Jewish names, like the Popular in El Paso and Foley’s in Houston, were owned and managed by Jewish families.
Thus, ironically, Texas Jews were the proprietors of many of the shops, restaurants, department stores, groceries, and theaters that denied equal service to blacks. Jewish merchants may have hated bigotry in the abstract, but in the real world, they found themselves among Jim Crow’s primary enforcers.
As was the practice everywhere in the South, black customers in Jewish-owned establishments could not eat at store restaurants, try on the merchandise, use the restrooms, return goods they had taken home, or, in some cases, even enter through the front door.
The prominence of Texas Jews in the business community, not to mention their well-established ethical principles, naturally made them conspicuous targets of civil rights protests. The state’s first sit-in occurred in 1960 at a Weingarten’s’ grocery store in Houston, on Almeda Road. Black students from Texas Southern University integrated the lunch counter and remained for several days until store managers changed their policy to permit seating black customers.
The successful protest at Weingarten’s illustrates an important point: Although Texas Jews were much more likely to be among the segregators than the activists, when prodded, they gave in readily to the protesters’ demands. They even may have welcomed picketers and boycotts that gave them a pretext for changing policies they never had liked but had been compelled by public opinion to adopt.
Events throughout the state bear out this interpretation. In Dallas, Jewish businesses remained segregated until the civil rights movement fully was underway. Then, starting in the early 1960s, Jewish stores were the first to integrate. Neiman’s famous Zodiac Room was the first elegant restaurant in Dallas to serve black diners.
Dallas Jewish businessmen like Stanley Marcus, Julius Schepps and Sam Bloom also served on committees working to desegregate the city’s schools, with as little conflict as possible. In 1961, they produced and bankrolled a film, “Dallas at the Crossroads,” that argued that the city should concede to court-ordered integration of public education. They screened it for white audiences, hoping to avoid the kind of conflict that had seized Little Rock, Ark., a few years earlier. Civil unrest, they knew, could destroy a city’s reputation and commercial viability.
A similar story played out in Texas in Houston, El Paso, Austin, Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Once protesters had begun to turn the tide of public opinion and to prevail in the courts, Jewish-owned businesses were the first to open their doors to black customers and to hire black employees. In these cities, too, Jews worked closely with other community leaders to push for peaceful integration of the public schools and other facilities.
Jewish business people were members of an ethnic minority living in a famously intolerant region. They were reluctant to place themselves in the forefront of a subject as emotionally charged as desegregation. But, when the times began to change around them, they offered no resistance. They were among the first whites to recognize the inevitability of change and to guide their communities toward accepting it.