Just and Righteous Causes: Rabbi Ira Sanders and the Fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926-196).
A biography of Ira Sanders, the Arkansas Reform rabbi who devoted his life to helping feed, educate, employ, protect, and desegregate Little Rock's citizenry for nearly 40 years, is long overdue. Sanders's contributions have been largely neglected by those of us who write about the mid-twentieth-century civil rights era in the American South. Author James L. Moses has performed a great service by producing such a meticulously researched biography.
The timing of the book feels providential, arriving as it does during this deeply fractured time in our history, when a divisive chorus drowns out productive strategies to fight poverty or prevent mass shootings. The reach and effect of Rabbi Sanders's life, and the civility and dignity with which he wielded his inexhaustible activism, is stunning. Few leaders could match his pace and accomplishments, but Moses's account could inspire those who want to try.
Sanders was not a charismatic preacher or, apparently, a particularly colorful figure. He won the hearts of his flock at Little Rock's B'nai Israel (and beyond) by aiming for their minds and ethical responsibilities first and by relentlessly pushing for achievable goals. He was a scholar with a whiff of pomposity. "His sermons were serious--no puns, no forgotten candlesticks, no jokes, and you were expected to sit and listen with no bathroom breaks or kids talking," a lifelong congregant recalled (41). Another member of B'nai Israel was only half joking when he said, "When I was a little boy I did not know the difference between Rabbi Sanders and God" (42).
When not in the pulpit, the man was simply a blur. He missed almost no avenue leading to human betterment, sustenance or support and was gifted at generating everything from more library books and accessible birth control to improved job access and open dialogue--and he did so across lines of faith, color and class. For Sanders there was no disconnect between faith and the serving of one's fellow human. His effectiveness rested in large part on his ability to speak the language of commerce and political process while evoking the voices of the prophets in the same paragraph. As the Arkansas Gazette once wrote, this was "a practical man, a business man" whose business was "Humanity--or God if you will" (42). He had, the newspaper's editorialists wrote, a certainty of purpose so strong that when he moved "from one objective to another he travels by the most economical route, a straight line" (42).
A Missouri native who received a graduate degree in sociology soon after his ordination, Sanders served congregations first in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He was a can-do social worker from his first days in the Little Rock pulpit, beginning in 1926. In 1934, when Franklin Roosevelt's Depression era work relief programs were falling short for the most vulnerable members of the community, Sanders proposed a voluntary 10-cent monthly utility tax to cover the gap. It worked. At a time when some public officials and physicians allowed thousands of forced sterilizations for poor women (often because they were rape victims, women with epilepsy, African Americans, or deemed mentally disabled or promiscuous) Sanders shook off racist and sexist eugenics views and in the 1930s made the persuasive case that married women who could not safely have or adequately provide for more children should have access to the surgery or contraceptives. In 1941 Sanders edited an Urban League study that both reported the comparative advantages of blacks in Little Rock, where home ownership was higher than that in other Southern cities, and called out the horrific 48% infant mortality rate for black women there (66).
All of this meant that by the time the civil rights battles of the 1950s erupted, Sanders had three decades of solid social justice progress behind him. He was already in the habit of speaking up for the disenfranchised. He rejected Jim Crow from the start and was outspoken from the pulpit--and, for that matter, during one of his first rides on a segregated bus. "No Southern rabbi matched Sanders' activism prior to Brown, [the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision] and few would match his determination in fighting Jim Crow," writes Moses (113). The author points out that some 200 rabbis were scattered across the South in the mid-1950s, more than half of them Reform. Most were part of interfaith alliances, but as Jewish clergy they usually stood alone or nearly so in their small communities. This made it more difficult and dangerous to take stands against institutionalized racism. Members of their congregations were often fearful that an activist voice from their pulpits would lead to boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses or a rise in more threatening antisemitic activities.
Working in Sanders's favor were two things. First was the collective backbone of B'nai Israel, where congregants, for the most part, did not try to quiet him and instead supported him when it counted. Second was the nature of Little Rock itself, which unlike many of its sister cities in the South did not face deadly bombings or large, bloody demonstrations. "Little Rock's city fathers and business leaders favored compromise over confrontation with the civil rights movement," writes Moses, who provides a valuable revisiting of the city's nature and history (124). This perspective is important, as for many Americans, Little Rock is principally known as the site of the contested 1957 integration of Central High School by the "Little Rock Nine," the African American students who first desegregated the hallways.
Moses is a straightforward writer who lets his remarkable subject's work speak for itself set alongside cogent context of the demanding times in which he lived. He has ensured that Sanders will be remembered, studied, and, one hopes, emulated, even in some small measure.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
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|Author:||Hartnett, Kimberly Marlowe|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2019|
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