Beth HaTephila Congregation
Series 13: DENNIS WINNER SERMON, July 2011
"Jewish Participation in the Fight for Racial Equality in Asheville During the Civil Rights Era "

Biographical note:  Dennis Winner serves as Superior Court Judge  DISTRICT 28 Buncombe County Superior Court, along with Alan Z. Thornburg
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    page_01 I have  been asked to speak tonight about the participation or lack thereof, of the Asheville Jewish community in the fight for racial equality during the civil rights era.  I have arbitrarily defined the civil rights era in Asheville to begin with the sit-ins at the FW Woolworth store in Greensboro, which occurred on February 1, 1960, through the riot at Asheville high school, which occurred on the third day of school in the 1969 school year.   I was away at school and elsewhere from September 1960 until I returned to begin my law practice in January 1967.  But my brother was here during much of the time I was gone and my sister was here during all of that time. 

First a little background.  Asheville was part of the segregated South.  Integration was not begun in the Asheville City schools until the mid-60s.  The schools were integrated three grades at a time over a four year period.  The first black students entered Lee Edwards high school in 1966.  In 1969 the black high school, Stephens Lee, was closed and Asheville high school fully integrated.   

Even though we were Southerners, the attitudes of whites in this community were not generally as rigid as those of the deep South and much of eastern North Carolina.  Things like separate water fountains began to disappear in my teenage years.  Politicians encouraged black Ashevillians to vote, and black people in fact, were an important part of the city political machine.  A black lawyer, Ruben Daley, was elected to the city Council in 1969.  None of those things could have happened in the deep South, or in much of the rest of North Carolina.   

There is evidence that in general there was less anti-Semitism in the south than the rest of the country in the first half of the twentieth century.  But it was more evident in many parts of the South during the fifties and sixties. Anti-Semitism, which clearly affected Southern Jewish attitudes toward civil rights both
    page_02 positively and negatively, was present here as elsewhere, but with the exception of exclusion from living in Biltmore Forest and membership exclusion in both country clubs, it was largely under the surface. 

The Jewish youth of Asheville from both synagogues were for the most part, pretty close to each other.  We kept together through our membership in the B’nai B’rith Youth organization.  I cannot remember  civil rights ever being discussed when I was a member , but my brother Bob, who was 4 years behind me, says civil rights was often discussed at BBYO conventions during his time.  As president of the boys part of BBYO, AZA Bob gave the Temple sermon sometime in 1963.  In his sermon he argued that it was a Jewish responsibility to actively support integration.  But he says nothing ever came of it.

 During 1960 a chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, was formed by students at Stephens Lee.  Following the Greensboro example they sat in at several Asheville lunch counters on August 16, 1960.  There was no white participation in the sit-ins.  Later on, Jewish teenagers, including my sister, became members of Asheville Student CORE, but their bi-racial conversations did not lead to public action.  She remembers feeling at the time that just going to these meetings was a statement in itself and was pretty brave.  

For the most part, Asheville was racially quiet from the time of those sit-ins in 1960 until the school riot in August 1969.  The riot at Asheville high school began as a demonstration to protest the abolition of Stephens Lee high school and the potential adoption of Lee Edwards’ mascot and colors.  The Stephens Stevens Lee students also demanded equal representation on the student council and other organizations such as cheerleaders; and that Black
    page_03 history and cosmetology of black women be taught by black teachers. The demonstration was peaceful for a while, but after the principal had met with the protesting students, he promised them that their grievances would be carefully considered and requested them to return to class. The protesting students moved away from the front steps and around the side of the building.  At this point, the principal probably overreacted by calling the police, but one must  remember that this was not long after there were devastating urban riots elsewhere.  Within minutes the police arrived in full riot gear, and so the black students began to riot.  They picked up large rocks that had been left from construction of a new vocational building and broke several thousand dollars worth of windows.  Several cars of white students were overturned, and many windshields broken.  School was dismissed and a three day dusk-to-dawn curfew was placed into effect by the city.  Several businesses also had windows broken and guns fired into them. The school restricted ingress and egress and almost all extra-curricular activities were curtailed. These restrictions lasted several months and during that time students became more familiar with each other and the problems were abated.  By 1970 the 4th Circuit court of Appeals said in an opinion “Doubtless Asheville is at or near the pinnacle of arithmetical desegregation in America”, as the schools here by then had been fully integrated. 

Up until the time of the riot, integration of the city schools had gone very smoothly, with almost no incidents.  My father Harry Winner was serving as chairman of the Asheville Human Relations Council at the time. The council had been formed by the City Council to ease school integration and deal with other civil rights issues and they had worked tirelessly to do so. I can remember my dad being very upset when the students rioted in 1969 because he thought Asheville could avoid the turmoil which was present elsewhere.

    page_04 A word about Harry Winner.  My father was born in 1910 in Savannah, Georgia where he was educated through high school.  He moved to the mountains of North Carolina in 1932.  He was a man of conservative nature (though not of conservative politics as we now think of it) and great tolerance.  He abhorred discrimination in all its forms and subtly worked to make changes. A few examples: In the late 50s, he was the first merchant to put a black mannequin in his show window.  In 1964 he convinced the other merchants in town to integrate the clerks on their floors.  All the larger stores did so on the same day.  Dad employed at that time, an elevator operator by the name of Irene Alexander.  One day he brought her into his office and asked her if she would be willing to be the first black sales clerk in Asheville.  He warned her that there would be verbal abuse from some customers, and there was.  But she took the job, and before long, was very popular with customers. 

During the 1950s there was an active chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Asheville. Each year there was a Jewish chairman, a Protestant chairman, and a Catholic chairman.  The main function of this organization was to put on Brotherhood Week every February.  During one of the years that my dad was Jewish chairman, the Brotherhood Week banquet was to be held at the old George Vanderbilt Hotel which is now low rent residential apartments on Haywood Street near the library and civic center.  The entertainment for the banquet was to be singing by several black church choirs.  But the hotel refused to allow black people to participate.  I can remember my father being extremely incensed over this, and he convinced the other chairmen to move the banquet to a local black Church.

 Dad of course was not the only Jew working quietly to make changes during this era and before.  Even during the depths of the depression Jews hired black people when others refused to do so.  I have been told that Harry Blomberg, for instance, was criticized

    page_05 for hiring a black auto  mechanic, John Baxter, when no other car dealer would. Baxter had gone to New York, learned to be a transmission mechanic, come home and failed at his own business because he could not find skilled workers. 

During the sixties, Dr. Samuel Robinson, Leah Karpen’s father, worked tirelessly to integrate the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Council and to insure that black kids could attend Daniel Boone Boy Scout camp.  And I am sure there were other instances of which I am not aware. 

So what was the participation of  the Asheville Jewish community in civil rights during that decade?  I’m sure you have inferred from my remarks that there was virtually no overt participation, it was more subtle than that.  In trying to understand why there was not participation in things like sit–ins and marches , I think it is important not to over generalize.  Individuals had different attitudes.  For instance, a few Jews were at least somewhat  racist.  A minority of southern Jews were racist; they tended to be people who had lived their whole lives in the South and thus inherited Southern attitudes about race and other things.   Some Jews, though they were not racist, believed that private business had a right to sell to whom they chose and that those property rights were paramount to individual rights.  Some Jews benefited from a segregated society and wanted to keep it that way.  There were at least two members of this congregation who were slumlords in Asheville.   

But probably the biggest reason for not participating in marches and sit-ins was that, while our history of being discriminated against made most Jews sympathetic to the plight of the black people, it also made Jews throughout the South, including Asheville, fearful of open participation in civil rights. As Clive Webb said in his excellent history of the Southern Jews and civil rights entitled Fight Against Fear : “During the desegregation 
    page_06 crisis Southern Jews were torn between two contradictory instincts.  A historical experience of persecution sensitized Jews to the plight of other oppressed minorities.  At the same time it is precisely because of that experience of persecution that Jews have as an act of self-protection striven to adapt to the laws and customs of their adopted homeland.  In the American South, that meant more than anything else an acceptance of racial segregation.  Fear of anti-Semitic reprisals forced many southern Jews into an uneasy silence during the civil rights struggle.” 

This feeling was magnified because of the bombings and attempted bombings of synagogues and Jewish Community Centers throughout the South, including Charlotte and Gastonia, during the late fifties and particularly the much publicized bombing  of the Temple in Atlanta which occurred on October 16, 1958.  The feeling was  further amplified  in Asheville where many Jews remembered the presence of the silver shirt headquarters in the thirties.  The silver shirts were a national fascist anti-Semitic organization which was headquartered here.  

But attitudes did change .  Jewish people gradually began to feel freer to more openly support black equality.  For instance, sometime in 1967-68 this congregation started the first integrated Boy Scout troop in Asheville.  The second scoutmaster was Jasper Dunlap who was the temple janitor at the time.  Unfortunately he does not remember who had the idea for the troop, but it was a member of the congregation, probably Dr. Robinson. WLOS-TV, channel 13, was then owned by the Wolfsons, a Florida Jewish family. The news editorialist was Mort Cohn, a member of this congregation and a friend of my parents.  Although I do not remember the details I do remember him editorializing on behalf of peaceful integration during those years.    By 1969 things had changed enough that Dr. Robinson felt free to write a letter to the editors of the Citizen Times supporting the cessation of racial
    page_07 hatred. Later, my sister Leslie became one of the most important civil rights lawyers in the state. 

So, that is my brief impression of the participation of the Jewish community in civil rights during the 60s.  I am sure there are many more instances of other members of this community helping to obtain civil rights for African-Americans, but as I said before it was not overt and was more subtle than participating in marches, sit-ins and the like.  And in fact the experience of Asheville Jews here was not very different from Jews throughout the South except that we lived in a state which unlike South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama and others did not attempt to actively and officially subvert the rule of law and the Supreme Court.  I hope what I said is accurate, and that I’ve been able to give you some sense of what it was like to live here during that time.  If you are interested in the subject of the Jewish History during that era I highly recommend the book I cited a minute ago: Fight Against Fear by Clive Webb.  It is easy to read and the definitive work on the subject.

      Dennis Winner
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