To Stand Aside or Stand Alone

Southern Reform Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement

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P. Allen Krause
  • Tuscaloosa, AL: 
    University of Alabama Press
    , December
     2016.
     424 pages.
     $44.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780817319243.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Part of what gives this edited collection of interviews a distinctive heartbeat is the backstory on how it came to be. This volume collects the interviews that P. Allen Krause conducted as a rabbinical student in 1966 under the condition that the interviews would be embargoed from publication for twenty-five years. After a lifetime career as a rabbi in California, Krause returned to his manuscript in retirement, only to be diagnosed with cancer soon after. Krause passed away before he could see this labor of love come into print. Historian Mark Bauman and son Stephen Krause saw the project to completion, and this volume is the result. The young voice of a student living through the sixties colors the interviews themselves. The older voice of a retired rabbi in his last years marks the interview introductions. Mark Bauman’s editorial additions and concluding bibliographical essay provide further historical context, content analysis, and historiographical insights. 

To Stand Aside or Stand Alone is undoubtedly a contribution of notable value to historians of the Civil Rights movement, of religion’s potential in enacting social change, of Black-Jewish relations, and of the American South and its complexities. Krause’s original 1969 article in American Jewish Archives ignited an array of other scholars to publish on southern Reform rabbis in the South, and now this collection reveals the research undergirding that original effort. Krause provides succinct profiles of the Jewish community in its geographical context and equally succinct biographies of the rabbis he interviews before each transcript. No Conservative or Orthodox rabbis agreed to be interviewed, so this is a study solely of Reform rabbis in the South. 

Krause presents thirteen rabbis, their interviews categorized under the headings of “In the Land of the Almost Possible” and “In the Land of the Almost Impossible,” a commentary on which geographical regions within the American South showed promise for peaceful desegregation and which geographical regions were impenetrably hostile to Civil Rights. Mobile, New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Norfolk (Virginia), Columbus (Georgia), and Alexandria (Louisiana) fall into the “almost possible” category, while Birmingham, Hattiesburg, Jackson, and Cleveland (Mississippi) fall into the category of “almost impossible.” Confirming what other scholars have concluded in other books on this subject, Bauman among them, Krause’s volume paints a picture in which the main mode of activism was in working behind the scenes in community organizations to push desegregation forward. Yet many of the rabbis in this volume were not activists at all, and it is in the ways in which they willingly answer questions that want them to be activists that they can be especially illuminating.

The very reason this volume gets a distinctive heartbeat from its late author’s backstory is also the reason that the book struggles to situate itself in a larger history of Civil Rights. Krause wants the reader to walk away with a new cast of heroes. The history of the Civil Rights movement, for better or for worse, resounds as a morality play, and what is striking in this volume is the continuity of Krause’s consciousness from the 1960s, when he conducted the interviews, and the 2000s when he compiled the manuscript. “When this whole thing is analyzed, fifty years, a hundred years from now, do you think that the role the rabbis played in your community ... in your state … in the South … will be of any importance at all in the overall picture?” young Krause asks his subjects. Answers varied but did not give Krause the unequivocal “yes” he was rooting for, which is revealing. While Krause’s focus was on historical judgment, his interview subjects cared most about the moment they were living in—and sometimes that meant they were out of the country or dealing with a family matter on the day of a historically-significant Civil Rights event. One consistent thread running through the volume is the tension between each rabbi’s moral obligation to racial justice and each rabbi’s obligation to the health and safety of his congregation. The rabbis carefully present their rationale behind decisions to get involved or not to get involved in Civil Rights activism, and their answers convey an oft-overlooked obvious fact: We live here. Southern academic presses (University of Alabama, University of Georgia) continue to be at the forefront of publishing on this subject, and the check on northern condescension toward the limits of the southern Jewry’s radicalism continues to deserve a place on the bookshelf. Movements look far different when people continue to live and work and eat and raise children together in the quiet quotidian after the marches. To Stand Aside or Stand Alone then is a compilation of Reform rabbis’ voices balancing acculturation with the perils of a hyper-racialized landscape and moving in ways that defy the easy categorizations of a movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Abigail Cooper is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

P. Allen Krause (1939–2012), a congregational rabbi for over forty years, devoted his rabbinate to issues of human rights, social justice, and interfaith understanding. Rabbi Krause graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 1961 and engaged in doctoral work in American history at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded a doctorate of divinity from the Hebrew Union College in 1993 and was named the Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University in 2005. Rabbi Krause taught at universities across California and had articles published in a variety of books and scholarly magazines.

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