The Racial Politics of “The Golden Rule”: The National Conference of Christians and Jews and School Desegregation, 1945–60

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Leah N. Gordon, Stanford University
Focusing on the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) in the 1950s and 1960s, this paper explores how religiously motivated anti-prejudice workers used education as an alternative to more effective—and politically contentious—challenges to racial injustice.  Part of a larger history of the postwar concept of prejudice, the NCCJ case exposes how understandings of racism that prioritized individual perpetrators and victims won out against theories that rooted the race issue in social structure or political economy.  Established in 1928 to address interfaith relations, the NCCJ was one of many religiously oriented associations seeking to produce tolerance in mid-twentieth century America.  As a result of Nazi racism and domestic calls for unity during wartime, the Conference turned attention towards racial prejudice by the mid 1940s.  Supported by social scientific findings and predisposed to moral exhortation, the NCCJ developed a widely-embraced approach to fighting intolerance that divorced prejudice from politics, saw inter-group tensions as rooted in misunderstanding, and assumed education alone could fix the race problem.  When the NCCJ turned to race relations in the South in the 1950s, the limitations of its framework became evident.  Amidst threats of “massive resistance” in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, some NCCJ leaders believed the organization was uniquely positioned to engage the southern “moderate.”  As a result, the national organization, to the outrage of northern branches, favored gradualism and refused to endorse Brown.  The paper highlights challenges associated with generalizing intergroup relations, the programmatic implications of the American tendency to explain social problems by pointing to individual actors, and the ways educational intervention justified disengagement from controversial racial politics.
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