Not much is known about the impact of Jews on the South. Certainly, recent efforts by academic researchers have painted a more complete picture of the true relationship between the inhabitants of the pre-Civil War South. The demographic was for the most part made up of two types of people, slaves and those who owned slaves.
While it is true that not all households in the South owned slaves, the one statistic we found staggering and believe truly shows the all encompassing reality of slavery was that 75% of the households in the South, headed by those who admitted to being Jewish, owned slaves in the years preceding the Civil War.
While it is true that a significant number of Jews heavily involved themselves in the abolitionist movement of the North, a little known fact is the substantial number of their brothers in religion, who – fiercely opposed to the abolition of slavery – fought on the side of the Confederacy to maintain the status quo.* See chart below.
This is not a slight against the Jewish people for all groups have the proverbial “skeletons in the closet.” However, it does give us a glimpse into the ingenuity and cunning of the Jewish people in their propensity to adapt to current surroundings for the continuance of their goals be they social, economic or otherwise.
It has been historically verified and is common knowledge that in the South, the Jews who settled there became thoroughly integrated into the folkways and mores of Southern society. A documentary, which we found to be quite interesting and would like to recommend to anyone who would like to look further into this subject is “Delta Jews.”
Sponsored in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council, heavily funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and others, the documentary provides us with the opportunity to place this period of time in its proper historical context.
While probably not his objective, New York based filmmaker Mike DeWitt provides us with the opportunity to explore aspects of the malevolent realities of Southern living experienced by members of the Jewish community in Mississippi. Indeed, Mississippi is known more for catfish than gefilte fish, however, a resilient Jewish community has prospered culturally and economically for over a century down in the Mississippi Delta.
Among the many interesting points of discussion by the members of the Jewish community that remain nestled in Mississippi was the cavalier attitude with which they discussed Jewish membership in the White Citizen’s Council, one of the fiercest opponents of desegregation and notoriously virulent racists.
The White Citizen’s Council was responsible not only for discriminatory legislation, but also acts of brutality directed at Black people living there. Mississippi has always been a state torn by racial division and marked by strife. Undoubtedly, the Jewish members of the White Citizen’s Council were absorbed by the hatred and enmity that enveloped those responsible for crimes against humanity during that period as well.
How members of the Jewish community in Mississippi were able to obtain membership in an organization that has traditionally held views that many would consider to be anti-Semitic is a feat that can be considered nothing short of remarkable. The degree to which Jews achieved assimilation in the South must have been extraordinary given the brutality directed against those who rejected the dominant fundamental Protestantism that permeated the culture.
For information on when “Delta Jews” may be viewed in your area, visit PBS Online at www.pbs.org