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The Hand of Esau: Montgomery’s Jewish Community & the Bus Boycott

By: Mary Stanton
Reviewed by: Sherry Kughn
River City Publishing, 2007
$15.95, Paperback

Those interested in Civil Rights history will find a treasure in The Hand of Esau by Mary Stanton, an author, public administrator, and former teacher. The book is written chronologically with ample stories of the personalities involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, an event that called on black, white, and Jewish residents to take part in an economic boycott to force an end to segregation in Montgomery.

The Montgomery Jewish community, like others in the South, existed between two crossroads during the Civil Rights era, one being sympathy for the black community and fear of losing their careers, and the other being adherence to their faith and their respect for others. The crossroads came together from the stories of individuals whose hearts and minds were focused on the issues. The Jewish community, Stanton writes, existed in a “painful ambivalence.” Her story of Montgomery’s Jewish community chronicles Montgomery residents’ input upon history.

Stanton’s book opens in 1838 with the story of the Weil family’s coming to Montgomery from Bavaria to settle near a scant number of second-generation Jews from areas further north and other Jewish immigrants who came through the port of Mobile. The Weils’ story is similar to other prosperous Jewish leaders who controlled a disproportionate share of Montgomery’s wealth, which cast them into a spotlight.

Unlike other Jewish communities in the North, though, the boycott revealed that Jews in the South were unwilling to take an active role in resolving segregation, preferring to ignore the importance of their influence. Almost two-thirds of the book tells, through Stanton’s exhaustive research, the reasons for this phenomenon. Leaders of councils, both old and newly formed, met during the Civil Rights years to encourage Montgomery residents of all backgrounds and endeavors to assist blacks in gaining their freedom. The title of the book comes from the resistance between these groups.

The Jewish community is referred to as manipulators in order to benefit themselves, as did Jacob in the Bible; and the Gentiles are referred to as violent and angry, like Jacob’s brother Esau. It is the struggle between these two groups that affected the Montgomery Civil Rights Movement and led Rosa Parks, in her famous act of defiance, to refuse to give up her seat to white bus riders.

The author has also written From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo, Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust, and Journey Toward Justice: Juliette Hampton Morgan and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Anniston resident Sherry Kughn is a former journalist and the author of Heart Tree for Empty Nesters. Her next title, Faith Flight for Empty Nesters, is due out this spring

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