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'There's a natural allegiance:' NAACP to honor Jewish roots at Charleston banquet

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LP Pittsburgh vigil 102818_02.JPG

Joe Engel, a survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, attends a vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on Oct. 28, 2018. "I didn't expect something like this would happen in the U.S.," he said. "We're all supposed to be equal here." Lauren Petracca/Staff

Centuries after German crusaders marched through Rhineland to massacre Jews in 1096 — setting a horrific precedence of anti-Semitism — chained Africans were forced on slave ships and taken to North America.

In the early 1900s, Jews and blacks united to form what would become the United States' oldest and largest civil rights organization — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — to fight against oppression, racism and discrimination.

On Saturday, the Charleston branch will honor its Jewish and African-American founders during its 101st Annual Freedom Fund Banquet at the Gaillard Center. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will be the keynote speaker.

Many people don't know the NAACP has Jewish ties, said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch.

In 1908, a Springfield, Ill., race riot left two blacks and four whites dead. It spurred white social activists Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villard, William English Walling and Henry Moscowitz to unite with black activists W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. They formed the NAACP a year later.

The Charleston branch was founded nearly a decade later in 1917.

Moscowitz, who was Jewish, helped to fund the NAACP's early efforts. Several other Jewish leaders joined forces with the organization to fight for people of color in the U.S.

This set the tone for the 20th century that saw Jews and African-Americans standing side by side during the civil rights movement.

In 1964, three males — two Jewish and one African-American — were killed by Ku Klux Klan members in Mississippi for their association with Freedom Riders and helping blacks register to vote.

Jewish leaders marched alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and across the South, their synagogues were bombed for promoting integration.

In 1966, Kivi Kaplan, a successful Jewish businessman, was elected president of the NAACP — a post he held until his death in 1975.

Janet Segal, who was a teenager in the '60s, worshipped with Kaplan at Temple Israel in Boston, a synagogue whose members often participated in civil rights marches and rallies. She remembers when Kaplan was elected NAACP president and joined the organization herself at an early age.

Now a member of the Charleston branch, Segal recalls how Jewish leaders were heavily involved in the struggles for blacks to gain equal rights.

“It was a great time to grow up," Segal said.

In South Carolina, Jewish and African-American ties weren't as tight as they were across the country.

Historically, S.C. Jews were mostly welcomed because of their white skin, while blacks were marginalized and discriminated against, said Dr. Ted Rosengarten, who teaches courses on the Holocaust at the College of Charleston.

In Charleston, Scott said the extent to which the two groups interacted were in Jewish-owned stores where blacks shopped.  

Jewish business owners welcomed black shoppers more than other white merchants, according to Dale Rosengarten, founding director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the college.

“Jewish store owners were more respectful to black clientele,” she said.

Over time, Jews in the area began to empathize more with blacks. Tragedies like the Holocaust were vivid reminders that Jews were still being persecuted across the world.

“There’s a natural allegiance," Dale Rosengarten said.

Moving forward, Jewish and NAACP leaders hope to strengthen that bond.

With the 2015 Emanuel AME Church shooting that left nine dead at the historically black church, and Charleston City Council's apology for slavery, the NAACP already had decided to honor its roots during this year's banquet.

That plan became more poignant after last weekend's massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead.

At a prayer vigil held at the Charleston Holocaust Memorial a day after the Pittsburgh shooting, survivors of the Emanuel shooting and Holocaust mourned together.

"It's timely," Scott said, "but it's not something we could have foreseen."

She hopes the NAACP and Charleston's Jewish community can unite in love to combat hate.

"Evil doesn't have a conscious," she said. "We're all in this together."

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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