To step into the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is to enter a chamber of horrors. Located in Jackson, the state capital, the museum documents the systematic oppression visited upon African Americans since the arrival of the European slave trade on American soil in the early 17th century. The Civil War that abolished the practice of human bondage did not end the terror against the newly freed, and tall plaques list thousands of lynching victims. Special attention is paid to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy viciously tortured and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. The photograph Till’s mother circulated to the media of her son’s mutilated corpse was so gruesome that only the African-American press published it. A vintage copy of Jet magazine, open to the image, forces visitors to confront the monstrous tyranny of the Jim Crow South.
To an American Jew, the parallels with the Holocaust—the dehumanization of a people, their enslavement by a racist regime, and the indifference of the world to their fate—are unavoidable. In large part due to this shared history of oppression, American Jews broadly understood that they could never truly be safe and free in a country that subjugated any group of people by dint of their race, ethnic origin, or religion. Jews thus played a significant role in the movement for racial equality, a role that the museum memorializes. One of the figures the museum highlights is Julius Rosenwald, a co-owner of the Sears Roebuck department store chain who devoted a healthy share of his large fortune to constructing nearly 5,000 schools for poor black children across the South (over 600 of them in Mississippi) during the early decades of the 20th century. “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer,” Rosenwald wrote in 1911. By 1928, a third of black school children in the rural South were being educated in “Rosenwald schools.”
Fully a third of the Freedom Riders who risked life and limb to desegregate interstate bus travel in the early 1960s were Jews. So were many of the young men and women who took part in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters in Mississippi. The town of Philadelphia will always be remembered as the place where Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two such Jewish activists from New York, and James Chaney, their black colleague from nearby Meridian, were murdered by white supremacists. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded them the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. An individual about whom I knew nothing until visiting the museum is Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, a civil-rights activist who earned the distinction of being the first white clergyman to have his home and congregation bombed by white supremacists in 1967.
The history and contemporary state of black-Jewish relations has been weighing on me since August, when I visited Jackson as a guest of the Mississippi Book Festival. I was there to present my book, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, as part of a panel entitled “(Re)shaping Public Discourse,” alongside professors Eddie Glaude and Imani Perry, both of Princeton University, and the authors of books about James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, respectively. Also invited to address the festival, immediately after our panel, was Alice Walker, one of America’s leading African-American writers, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple—and a well-known antisemite.
Walker evinces her antisemitism primarily not through her own words, but in her enthusiastic promotion of David Icke, the ex-footballer and prominent proponent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion who simultaneously denies the Holocaust while claiming that the Jews perpetrated it against themselves. In 2013, Walker told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs that if she could keep only one book it would be his Human RaceGet Off Your Knees, which purports to reveal the “sinister network of families and non-human entities that covertly control us from cradle to grave.” Asked by the New York Times what books were on her nightstand in 2018, she included in her response Icke’s And the Truth Shall Set You Free. In an exhaustive inventory of Walker’s antisemitism published in Tablet magazine, Yair Rosenberg observed that this tract alone contains the word “Jewish” 241 times and “Rothschild” 374 times. “These references are not compliments,” Rosenberg wrote.
Two weeks before the organizers of the Mississippi Book Festival announced their invitation of Walker, the Bay Area Book Festival announced that it had disinvited her due to her antisemitism. Questioned about the propriety of welcoming Walker to Jackson in the light of such controversy, the executive director of the festival there explained that its invitation was intended “to honor the 40th anniversary of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple and the release of Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965–2000.”
This set of circumstances presented me with a conundrum. As a free speech absolutist, I oppose censorship in any form. On the other hand, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the US Constitution, or even a belief in a more nebulous “free-speech culture,” does not entitle every lunatic to a newspaper column, a book deal, or a slot at a literary festival. That said, I’m also left uneasy by pressure campaigns to rescind speaking invitations once they’re given, as such behavior can set a bad precedent. Given this mess of beliefs, I felt the best course would be to use the platform afforded to me and express my thoughts about Walker’s Jew-hatred.
Walker’s honored presence at a state-sponsored literary festival, it should be noted, occurred against a backdrop of rising antisemitism in the United States, where Jews constitute the main target of religiously-motivated hate crimes. In New York City, visibly observant Jewish individuals are being physically assaulted at such an alarming rate that a Congressman has called for a Department of Justice investigation. According to Armin Rosen of Tablet, these assaults are being “treated as a parochial problem, not as a phenomenon with implications for broader civic and social health.” By way of example, the New York Timesrecently published an absurd piece, supposedly the result of an in-depth investigation, absolving the Women’s March for the well-documented antisemitism of its founders. (Instead, the Times blames the whole kerfuffle on Russian propagandists.)
At a time when American Jews face these kinds of threats, it might strike some as a diversion to draw attention to the antisemitism of an aging African American literary figure. But the hatred endorsed by Walker has a strong sting, since it emanates from the pen of a woman whose historical experience has been intertwined with that of the Jews. If, as Julius Rosenwald observed, “the horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race,” then so does the antisemitism of those who have themselves suffered persecution wound more than that of those who have not.