Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock made history this week when they assumed their roles as US Senators from Georgia following a remarkable and hard-fought runoff election. Black voters came out in record numbers, turned the tide, and elected Ossoff, a white and Jewish documentary filmmaker and former Legislative aide, and Warnock, who is Black and the senior pastor of Atlanta’s revered Ebenezer Baptist Church, giving Democrats crucial seats in the Senate.
Their elections are the latest chapter in a history of a sometimes uneasy but undeniably effective collaboration between Jews and people of color in America in the fight for civil rights.
I am reading widely to learn more about both of these men. Warnock was the youngest preacher to assume senior leadership of the church once led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Ossoff has described the influence on his life of the heroic Georgia Congressman John Lewis. There could be no better community or wiser teacher for learning how to bring about the more perfect union this country so sorely needs.
Today a Washington Post article by Jaclyn Peiser caught my eye with a particular detail about the tangible history Ossoff carried to his swearing-in ceremony. (She credits an earlier piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Greg Bluestein for first reporting this detail.)
In Ossoff’s pocket was a copy of the ship’s manifests from his great-grandparents’ processing at Ellis Island when they came to America as immigrants. As he took his oath of office, his hand rested on a Hebrew Bible that once belonged to Rabbi Jacob “Jake” Rothschild who served the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta. Rothschild was one of a few southern rabbis who risked his safety and career to speak out against Jim Crow during his tenure at the Temple from 1946-1973. (Ossoff’s bar mitzvah ceremony was held at the Temple some two decades ago.)
As I wrote in my book, Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights (UNC Press, 2015):
“In 1954, the board of directors of Rothschild’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta … was horrified by Rothschild’s idea of forming an in-house discussion group on racial issues. The proposal was soundly rejected, despite Atlanta’s comparatively liberal atmosphere. The first Jewish chaplain to see combat in World War II, Rothschild did not shrink from any challenge. He came to be known as one of the leading clerics in the movement, a career path full of risks and trials for him, his family, and his congregation, including a dramatic 1958 bombing of the Temple.”
The blast from the 50 sticks of dynamite left at the Temple by white supremacists came just 13 years after the end of the war against the Third Reich, and it drew the eyes of the world and fueled more activism. Here at home it helped bring the Rabbi and many of his fellow clerics into closer partnership with Black leaders of his day, including Rothschild and his wife Janice, with Dr. King and Coretta Scott King.
These relationships paved the way for the historic arrival of Georgia’s two newest US Senators, both coming from faith communities of courage and change: Warnock, the first Black man to represent the state in the US Senate, and Ossoff, the first Jew to do so.
They will carry the best of our history forward and we will all be the better for it.
–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
Good books if you want to read more:
Mark K. Bauman and Berkley Kalin, eds. The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s. particularly the introduction by Bauman.
Melissa Faye Greene, Temple Bombing