can look at the people who got grants from Julius Rosenwald, and say, these are
the predecessor generation to the civil rights generation that I’m a part of.
And I’m a predecessor generation to the Obama generation that resulted in the
election of the first black president of the United States.”
Civil Rights Activist Julian Bond
Rosenwald, filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s latest
documentary, opened in Metro Chicago Friday. Kempner is already highly-respected
for her award-winning films The Life and Times of Hank
Greenberg and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, but Rosenwald
has special significance for members of Chicago’s Jewish community because
Julius Rosenwald was one of our own.
Although he was born and raised in
Springfield -- very close, in fact, to the residence of then President Abraham
Lincoln -- Rosenwald lived most of his life very close to the University of
Chicago Campus where there is now a building built in his honor called Rosenwald
“All Gaul is
divided into three parts,” said Julius Caesar, and so is Kempner’s film. Part
One provides an overview of how this child of German Jewish immigrants became
the logistical genius who turned Sears, Roebuck and Company into one of the
most successful mercantile enterprises in the history of American Business.
Part Two explains how Rosenwald used his vast -- and most unexpected -- resources
to build Rosenwald Schools for African-American children all across the South.
Part Three shows how he went on to create the Rosenwald Fund which sponsored
the early work of some of the USA’s greatest African-American artists.
This film, which
was in the making for more than a decade, arrives in theaters at the perfect
moment. Just as the U.S. is finally facing the enormity of the
#BlackLivesMatter campaign, America’s Jewish community is learning how many
members of our own mishpacha are biracial. Given the enormous role Jewish-Americans played in the
Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, this should not be a surprise, and yet it
seems that it is. We know that many famous people such as Rain Pryor, Lani Guinier,
James McBride and Rebecca Walker are both Black and Jewish. And, in fact,
Bond’s wife, Pamela Sue Horowitz, a former staff attorney at the Southern Poverty
Law Center, is also a Member of the Tribe.
Rosenwald helps us understand
that the Jewish role in the history of the African-American experience did not
begin or end with the murder of three Civil Rights workers -- Andrew Goodman, James
Chaney and Mickey Schwerner -- in 1964. The ties that bind the Jewish-American
community and the African-American community were tied tight and tied forever
by Chicago businessman, philanthropist, and mensch Julius Rosenwald.
personal note, I saw Rosenwald for
the first time on July 9 at a private event for members of the Center for
Jewish History in Manhattan. Filmmaker Aviva Kempner gave a brief introduction
before the screening and then participated in a panel discussion after the
credits rolled with Julian Bond, NYU Professor Hasia Diner, former LBJ
speechwriter Eli Evans, and Rabbi David Saperstein. It was an unforgettable
evening, made especially poignant by the fact that it was one of Julian Bond’s
final public appearances. He died in Florida on Aug. 15 at age 75. But you
would never have predicted that on July 9. He was elegant, eloquent, and in
full command of his faculties. Those few moments at the end, when I spoke with
him one-on-one at the reception, were joyous. He was there to celebrate the
life of Julius Rosenwald, and he worked the crowd -- me included -- like a
Rosenwald is now playing in Metro
Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lincoln Park and the Landmark
Renaissance Place in Highland Park. For schedule information and
tickets purchases, visit her website: http://www.rosenwaldfilm.org/home.php
also purchase tickets from the Landmark Theatres website: http://www.landmarktheatres.com/chicago/film-info/rosenwald
this link to read more JUF News coverage of the film by JUF News Executive Editor Cindy Sher:
more photos and links, visit my blog.
Top Photo: Julius Rosenwald and Booker T.
Washington, Tuskegee Institute (1915) courtesy of Special Collections Research
Center, University of Chicago Library
Bottom Photo: Director Aviva Kempner with Julian Bond at the 2015 Washington
Jewish Film Festival. Photo credit: Aryeh Schwartz (WJFF)