British Association for American Studies


Book Review: The Spingarn Brothers: White Privilege, Jewish Heritage, and the Struggle for Racial Equality by Katherine Reynolds Chaddock

John Hopkins University Press, $34.95.

In her book The Spingarn Brothers: White Privilege, Jewish Heritage and the Struggle for Racial Equality, Katherine Reynolds Chaddock recounts the lives of two brothers, highlighting their involvement in and lasting influence with the Black rights activist group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Chaddock questions to what extent the antisemitism faced by the Spingarn brothers may have played a part in their desire to join an institution fighting for racial equality. Chaddock questions how their Jewish heritage and family history shaped their professional lives and involvement with social justice campaigns, yet the book does not seem to offer any definitive answers. The Spingarn Brothers is undoubtedly an excellently researched double biography of Joel and Arthur Spingarn, well contextualised within early twentieth-century racial issues and activism, but it leaves much to be desired in its line of questioning on how being Jewish influenced the brothers’ ambitions, successes, and failures within the Black rights movement.

Most scholarship on the subject focuses on the post-WWII and the 1960s relations between the two communities. Chaddock reveals the Spingarn brothers’ activity as early as 1907 when they joined the NAACP. In 2015, M. Alison Kibler published a chapter in Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930, which focused on early collaborative efforts in their struggles for racial equality between the Jewish and the African American communities by means of campaigns calling for the censoring of race-based motion pictures in Hollywood.[i] Similarly, Melissa F. Weiner investigated parallels in the Jewish and the African American struggles in New York City public schools, which offers a comprehensive precursor to Chaddock’s predominant focus on the professional adult lives of the Spingarn brothers. Weiner claims, ‘Comparing their experiences, rather than analyzing them separately, allows for a more nuanced understanding of the way schools shape racial meanings, patrol the boundaries of whiteness, and undergird a system of oppression’.[ii] More recently, Hannah Labovitz published “The Complex Relationship between Jews and African Americans in the Context of the Civil Rights Movement,” in which Labovitz tackles the difficult nuances between the Jewish and the African American communities, looking at their bonding over similar exclusion and empathetic connections in the early twentieth century as well as the evolution of their tumultuous relationship in the 1960s when challenges began to push them apart.[iii]

The book’s double biography progresses chronologically, narratively following the divergent paths of Arthur, who became a lawyer specialising in corporate concerns, and Joel, who became a published author and tutor in Columbia University’s comparative literature programme. Chaddock continually positions the different attitudes of the brothers; Joel was proactive, passionate, and relentless, while Arthur was studious, cautious, and well-reasoned. These attributions colour the narrative as the reader is brought through each phase of their careers and they are kept in mind as the brothers’ work with the NAACP is introduced as overlapping, instigated more often than not by Joel asking Arthur for assistance with pro-bono legal support with the organisation. To compliment Chaddocks work, the reader is recommended to consult “Equality before the Law Matters: The Legacy of American Jews and the Founding of the NAACP and the Modern Civil Rights Movement” by John P. Williams (2021) for context on Jewish involvement with the NAACP, as well as Yavilah McCoy’s “Trayvon Martin: Reflections on the Black and Jewish Struggle for Justice” (2014) for a similar comparative case study.[iv]

Perhaps contrary to the suggestive title which supposes a strong link between the Spingarn brothers’ Jewish heritage and their support in the struggle for African American racial equality, Chaddock concludes ‘The influence of the Spingarns’ Jewish heritage on their work for racial justice was likely less prominent than it might have been in other times or places’.[v] The author relies heavily on the opinions and publications of the brothers’ friend and associate, W. E. B. Du Bois, who claimed in 1923 ‘that “the Negro race looks to Jews for sympathy and understanding.”’[vi] Yet Chaddock cannot fully apply Du Bois’ position to that of Joel or Arthur. The author states that ‘[…] there is no evidence that the brothers themselves ever contemplated a direct connection between elements of their Jewish heritage and their recognition of Black experience.’[vii] However, Chaddock posits ‘The Spingarns and other white Jews affiliated with the founding years of the NAACP were in a good position to bridge the differences of thought that sometimes haunted relations between Protestant white liberals and the Black people they sought to help’.[viii] To tackle the complexities at play, Chaddock cites Eugene Bender who observes how Jewish philanthropists working with the NAACP were ‘”asked to bear witness as members of the white majority and as members of an historically victimized minority”’.[ix]

While in certain instances, Chaddock refers to the Spingarns’ family heritage and Jewishness as their impetus for fighting racial inequality, at other times, she refers to specific experiences that inspired them towards activism. For example, though the brothers were aware of the ‘well publicized instances of racial unrest in New York City’, it was ‘Arthur’s handling of his first civil rights case in 1905 [that] left him with what he viewed as an initial understanding of racial “indecency, inhumanity, and injustice”’.[x] Likewise, Joel seemed to have undergone a similar influence in 1902 when he decided to spend the summer ‘conducting an on-site study of a continuing and very bloody Kentucky feud,’ referring to the Hargis-Cockrell case and subsequent killings in the area.[xi] Both moments in the brothers’ lives appear to be strong influences towards them joining the NAACP in 1907. Other examples such as these persist throughout the work, layered over with allusions to the brothers’ empathetic Jewish sensibilities.

Chaddock provides a thorough biography of the Spingarn brothers and their activity with the NAACP. The book briefly covers their early years and family background and focuses most chapters on their work from 1907 into the 1930s and 1940s working with the NAACP, and how they responded to the changing social landscape in New York and the wider US. The narrative convincingly demonstrates how the Spingarns paved the way for future change through their directorial, legal, and advocate involvement with the NAACP along with friendships with major figures in the Black liberation struggles such as Du Bois. While white privilege is explored in depth, the Jewish heritage aspect of the work leaves a bit more to be desired. All in all, The Spingarn Brothers is a must read for all those interested in early collaborations between Jewish and African American racial causes.

End Notes:

[i] M. Alison Kibler, Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African Struggles over Race and Representation, 1890-1930 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[ii] Melissa F. Weiner, “Introduction: Unlocking the Golden Door and Unpacking the Great School Myth,” in Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City (New York City: Rutgers Press, 2019),2.

[iii] Hannah Labovitz (2021), “The Complex Relationship between Jews and African Americans in the Context of the Civil Rights Movement,” The Gettysburg Historical Journal: Vol. 20, Article 8: 101-138.

[iv] John P. Williams, “Equality before the Law Matters: The Legacy of American Jews and the Founding of the NAACP and the Modern Civil Rights Movement,” in Human Rights in the Contemporary World, ed. Trudy Corrigan (London: IntechOpen, 2022); Yavilah McCoy, “Trayvon Martin: Reflections on the Black and Jewish Struggle for Justice,” Tikkun (2014) 29 (1): 14–21.

[v] Kathrine Reynolds Chaddock, The Spingarn Brothers: White Privilege, Jewish Heritage and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2023),143.

[vi] Chaddock, The Spingarn Brothers, 144.

[vii] Ibid., 144.

[viii] Ibid., 41.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid., 33.

[xi] Ibid., 24.