Film reveals little-known past of 30s Jewish-black bond

In the spring of 1933, hundreds of professors and scholars were expelled from German universities. Many fled Europe and ended up teaching at black colleges and universities in the American South.

"The civil rights movement didn't start with Rosa Parks," Jim McWilliams told an audience of almost 50 people at a recent talk at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

Instead, the movement was spawned on black Southern campuses, where shared oppression created a bond between blacks and Jews.

McWilliams, along with Lore and Donald Rasmussen, was an eyewitness to the birth of the civil rights movement and a period of Jewish-black relationships about which little has been written.

A graduate of the all-black Talladega College in Alabama and a retired lawyer, he recently moved from Washington, D.C., to Alameda with wife Anne. He spoke at the BRJCC along with the Rasmussens, who taught at Talladega from 1942 to 1955. Lore Rasmussen was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.

The documentary film "From Swastika to Jim Crow," based on the book of the same name by Gabrielle Simon Edgecomb, tells the story of these refugees and the black-Jewish relationship that emerged at black colleges. Excerpts were shown at the BRJCC, where the film will be screened in its entirety on Sunday, Feb.11.

The film describes the journey of the exiled German Jewish intellectuals who hoped to find work in the United States. However, because of the Depression, anti-Semitism and a general hostility toward foreigners, only a select few found places at America's top universities.

Some headed South to teach at all-black colleges, where many Jews felt more comfortable and more at home.

The German Jewish professors had a "tremendous impact on young blacks in the South," said McWilliams. "They exposed us to new music, art and academic programs."

In turn, confronting racism in the United States had a profound effect on the Jewish refugees.

"The experience of injustice I felt in Germany from Hitler coming into power I felt was being repeated," said Lore Rasmussen, who came to the United States in her late teens, moving first to Illinois. In the 1930s, racism and anti-Semitism were facts of life in both the North and the South.

Lore Rasmussen met her American-born husband while she was one of his students. In 1942, they went to Talladega College to teach. Before going, a representative of the college warned them about what life would be like for them there: They would be isolated from the white community, their housing was in need of repair and the faculty had just taken a pay cut.

"Nothing he said could discourage me from going there," she said.

Early on the Rasmussens got a lesson in Southern living when they were arrested and jailed for eating at a restaurant with one of their black colleagues. At first the police thought Lore was a German spy, but then she explained that she was a Jew and had escaped from Nazi Germany. "You should be glad to be in a place where there's democracy and freedom," she remembers the police telling her.

"There was violence all around," said Donald Rasmussen, telling of lynchings and cross burnings.

"It was unsafe off campus," McWilliams agreed, adding that this danger made for special, close relationships between students and professors because there were no distinctions between campus and home life.

Lore Rasmussen said her sons, who are still in touch with childhood friends from Alabama, saw themselves as part of the black community. Regretting that they didn't have kinky hair, they would try to puff out their mouths so their features resembled those of their black friends. She also remembered one of her sons telling her that white men were bad. When asked about his family, he explained that they weren't white, they were tan.

Actually the confusion over where Jews belonged on the racial scale wasn't limited to the Rasmussens' sons. McWilliams said many of the students thought Jews were black. One of the men in the film told how he got into an argument with friends because they insisted that Jews were black. They had read the Bible and said that, "anyone who suffered like that had to be black."

McWilliams and the Rasmussens talked about the beginnings of the civil rights movement, including the Civil Rights Congress that was formed in 1947, with black and white delegates from colleges all over Alabama. A cross was burned outside the building where the congress held a dance. Rasmussen saved the charred remains of the cross and hung it on his living room wall as a symbol.

Rasmussen told of visiting an all-white high school in Birmingham in 1947 and talking to the students about brotherhood and the evils of segregation. To his surprise, many of the students agreed with him.

McWilliams talked about a professor who was giving a public speech about civil rights and had asked his black students to arrive early and sit in every other seat. That was the first time some of the whites in the audience had ever sat next to a black person.

Both Rasmussen and McWilliams told of the student protests at Talladega when Professor Victor Pappenheim was labeled a Communist and fired because he refused to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's investigating committee.

Although the black-Jewish history is a rich one, a member of the audience asked McWilliams what he thought the future prospects were.

Looking back to the civil rights movement, McWilliams said that blacks and Jews were natural allies "to form a coalition to fight oppression. But we've strayed quite a ways from that. I hope that we can rekindle it."