“Carolina Israelite,” by Portland writer Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, tells the true story of Harry Golden, a down-to-earth Jewish author who became a civil-rights crusader in the segregated South. Hartnett discusses her book Tuesday, May 19, at Seattle’s University Book Store.
Harry Golden is not exactly a household name today, but in the 1950s and 1960s, you couldn’t flip open a popular magazine or tune in to a TV talk show without encountering him. Golden’s liberal Jewish newspaper, the Carolina Israelite, published out of Charlotte, N.C., was an early and eloquent champion of the civil-rights movement. His folksy, rambling books — chicken soup for the middlebrow soul — topped best-seller lists. He numbered Carl Sandburg, Bobby Kennedy and Billy Graham among his pals. Born in czarist Russia, raised on the Lower East Side, jailed for stock fraud in the Roaring Twenties, self-reincarnated as a crusading journalist/social activist, Golden had one of the most bizarrely improbable résumés in the annals of American arts and letters.
He was, writes veteran Portland journalist Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett in “Carolina Israelite” (University of North Carolina Press, 432 pp., $35), her engaging biography of Golden, “an irrepressible contrarian, both humanitarian and mountebank” — yet he pulled it off and, in doing so, provided reams of terrific material. At a time when speaking out for civil rights in the South brought death threats, Golden supported the cause “with a potent mix of bravery, humor, anger, and hope.” Hartnett does not omit her subject’s warts — which were legion — but she makes it clear that with Golden vice and virtue were inextricably bound together.
Son of a penniless Jewish scholar and a self-sacrificing mother, Golden — born Chaim Goldhirsch — might have become just another Lower East Side schlepper had his conscience not been kindled by the plight of African Americans in the Jim Crow South. What triggered this conversion is not exactly clear — it seems to have been compounded from a love of literature, Jewish left-leaning politics and an innate sympathy for the underdog. “Golden,” writes Hartnett, “did not see himself as a victim, but as a comrade.”
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
The author of “Carolina Israelite” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 19, at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
The book really catches fire with the Supreme Court’s rejection of “separate but equal” in the Brown versus Board of Education case of 1954. The civil-rights battles that ensued — the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955; the attempt to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock in 1957; the Freedom Riders of the summer of 1961; the Birmingham Church bombing of 1963 — became the domestic news story of postwar America. Golden not only covered the story but made himself part of it.
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When Martin Luther King wrote his celebrated “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963, he included Golden’s name with those who “have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.”
And then it all fell apart. Liberal Jews had been among the most ardent and generous supporters of the civil-rights movement, but in the late 1960s, Black Power advocates began dismissing their “poisoned gradualism” as just another form of racism. Golden was outraged in 1967 when SNCC [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] attacked Zionists and “the little Jew shops in the ghettos.” The rift between American blacks and Jews that opened at the end of the 1960s still has not healed.
By the time of his death in 1981, Golden was a marginalized leader, a spokesman for a movement that had turned its back on him. Today, he is all but forgotten. This superbly written, solidly researched book is unlikely to spark a Harry Golden revival — but it will stand as a moving portrait of a man whose life and work, in Hartnett’s words, trace the “arc of the civil rights movement.” Golden was a fascinating figure and, by hook and by crook, he inserted himself into the center of a fascinating — and incendiary — period of history.