Twentieth-century America was the era of civil rights. The National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed in 1890 by the merger of several smaller predecessors. In 1906, a group of German Jewish Americans came together to advocate on behalf of Russian Jewish pogrom victims. This was the beginning of the American Jewish Committee.
Following the Springfield race riots of 1908, W.E.B. Du Bois and others founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The National Urban League was founded in 1911 to ameliorate the living conditions of newly urbanized African Americans and, in 1913, during the Leo Frank rape case, the Anti-Defamation League was established by the B’nai B’rith. These and other subsequent organizations changed the nature of America by challenging America to live up to its ideals.
Prior to these organizations’ efforts, America was a white-male-Protestant Christian-led country, in which everyone else was a more-or-less tolerated guest of the dominant group.
During the course of the past century, first one group and then another broke through the legal barriers that discriminated against them. American Jews and American Jewish organizations played prominent roles in every civil rights struggle during this period. American Jewish organizations determined that “the best way to protect Jewish populations in danger would be to work toward a world in which all peoples were accorded respect and dignity,” according to the AJC Web site.
The age-old fight against anti-Semitism thus became part of the larger fight against all forms of bigotry and in support of (American) democratic ideals and the protection of civil rights for all.
By the approximate end of the 20th century, America truly was on the verge of reaching a benchmark for the ideals set forth, but not necessarily anticipated, by the Founding Fathers. Geraldine Ferraro, Joseph Lieberman and Barack Obama are proof of our having formally reached our country’s highest aspirations, even if a broader application of universal equality still lies ahead in a hopefully not-too-distant future.
But what do the persecution, oppression and legal discrimination of the 20th century mean to a younger generation that didn’t have to endure and transcend such suffering? And, with Israel playing the role of regional superpower rather than that of a fledgling state beset on all sides, will its concerns resonate with a group that did not witness its traumatic birth and its struggle to survive? What issues will captivate and motivate our future leaders and community members?
And what of these organizations that championed a vision that called America and the world to live up to the ideal of equal human rights for all people? Once the discriminatory legal barriers that limited full participation in American society have been removed, what remains to be done? Will the organizations that led America to fulfill its promise during the 20th century be able to adapt and change to meet the needs of the 21st century? Only time will tell.