Driving Miss Racial Activist

At first blush, the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy seems innocuous. Its plot centers around the relationship of an aging Jewish matron, Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy), and her black chauffeur Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman). Yet a recent rewatch caused me to notice irksome elements of the plot I missed the first time around. This has to do with the injection of the producer’s politics in an otherwise pleasant movie.
As is often the case with films today, Driving Miss Daisy’s political message doesn’t correspond with true history, particularly the history of Jews and race relations in the American South.
The story begins as Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie (Dan Aykroyd), hires Hoke to drive his aging mother, whose reflexes are declining, around on her daily tasks. Boolie, a wealthy businessman who dutifully runs an industry inherited from his grandfather and father, cares deeply about his mother and is grateful that the widowed Hoke looks in on Miss Daisy after doing her driving. Boolie and his wife—to whom he is equally devoted—have no children, and I found myself feeling sorry for this kind son and indulgent husband.
Set in 1950s Atlanta, the movie highlights the increasingly close relationship between two senior citizens of obviously different social backgrounds. Over time Miss Daisy comes to view Hoke less as a black house servant and more as her closest friend, a truth she states at the end of the movie as she is being cared for in a  diminished state in an upscale nursing home.
The movie would have done well sticking to character development. Instead, nearly every scene reminds us that segregation existed in Atlanta, as it did in other places in the South in the 1950s, as well as Washington, D.C. The film also belabors us with the message that anti-Semitism was raging in Dixie back then. In one example, we are shown some nasty Southern bumpkin sneering at the Jewish Miss Daisy and black Hoke as they ride together on a trip from Atlanta to Mobile, Alabama.
This outbreak of bigotry makes no dramatic or logical sense. Why would anyone care that a black chauffeur was driving an elderly white woman? Moreover, why would this sneering bigot even think that Tandy’s Miss Daisy is Jewish? She certainly doesn’t look Semitic, and the character that Tandy was playing was someone descended from German Jewish settlers who came to the South in the 19th century. People of that background and class would have been hard to distinguish physically or behaviorally from Southern Christians. Indeed, Southern Creoles would look more different from Germanic-looking Southerners than Miss Daisy does from her Christian neighbors.
An event that is shown to have transformed Miss Daisy—and which unfortunately did occur—was the 1958 bombing of the oldest Reform Temple in Atlanta by a crazed segregationist. Miss Daisy is so moved by the pervasiveness of Southern bigotry, from which she suddenly realizes that her fellow Jews as well as blacks were suffering, that she becomes an ardent supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the later scenes in the film shows Miss Daisy attending a speech by King, whom she now ardently supports. King’s voice is projected, just like the voice of Christ in Ben-Hur, as an ethereal, divine presence whose physical form may be too sacred to be viewed. Significantly, the apolitical Hoke, who drives her to the event, is not even aware of who King is.
In any case, the bombing is supposed to have changed Miss Daisy to such a degree that she obviously disapproves of her insensitive daughter-in-law, Florine (Patti LuPone), going to San Francisco as a Goldwater delegate in 1964. This was somehow a betrayal of the struggle against Southern bigotry, in which all of us should be passionately engaged by the end of the film.
All this talk of Southern bigotry reminded me of an occasion last summer when I was interviewed by R. Michael Givens, a Georgian filmmaker working on a documentary about Southern Jewry until 1877. Givens was inspired to undertake this project after reading Robert Rosen’s informative work The Jewish Confederates (2001). Rosen documents how thoroughly pro-Confederate Southern Jews became during and after the Civil War. 
Out of the 25,000 Jews who settled in the American South by 1861, 2,000 volunteered to fight for the Cause. Secretary of War, and later the Confederate secretary of state, Judah Benjamin, was a Sephardic Jew (of Spanish or Portuguese origin), as was one member of the Confederate Senate. One of the first houses of worship in Charleston that declared for secession was Temple Bethel, the congregation to which Judah Benjamin’s parents had belonged. 
Moreover, even after the South’s defeat, synagogues throughout the region were decorated with pictures of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The graves of Jews who fell in the war were accorded special veneration by their co­religionists, the latter of whom, Rosen notes, were among the most fervent celebrants of the Lost Cause.
Although only a few hundred slaves were in the hands of Jewish owners, Jews in the South had no interest in the abolitionist cause, as the Israeli leftist newspaper Haaretz noted reproachfully in a June 2021 article, “The Uncomfortable Truths of Jewish Life in the U.S. South.” Indeed, many of the Sephardic Jews residing in the American South came from families that ran plantations in the West Indies. Although German Jews came to be numerically the larger Jewish group by 1861, the Sephardim set the tone for Southern Jewish culture and political attitudes.
By the early 20th century the relationship between Southern Jews and Southern Christians was undergoing a change for the worse, one reason why Givens is wise to end his documentary of Southern Jewry around the 1870s mark. Sephardic and German Jewish dominance in the South and elsewhere in the U.S. gave way to a far less assimilable Jewish majority from Eastern Europe. The newcomers were politically more radical or else lived apart in culturally alien Orthodox communities. Their presence aroused deep concern and even distaste among members of the Jewish establishment, who did not take kindly to their newly arrived fellow Jews. But even more ominously, this uncongenial addition gave rise to an anti-Semitism that hardly existed in the South before. 
It made itself felt in the revived Ku Klux Klan of the early 20th century, and it showed its face in the 1913 Leo Frank case in Atlanta following the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, an employee in the pencil factory partially owned by Frank’s uncle. Frank came from an old-line affluent Jewish family, rather than a recently arrived Eastern European immigrant family. Although Frank’s guilt now seems almost indisputably established, the fact that he was lynched by a mob after his death sentence was commuted was a horrifying development. And there were certainly anti-Semitic tones that ran through the rants of Frank’s accusers. The reaction of the Jewish old settlers to this shocking event was generally to remain in their social space, while continuing to mingle with the Christian upper class.
The temple Miss Daisy is shown attending—the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, Atlanta’s oldest and most prestigious Jewish house of worship—was under the spiritual direction of Rabbi David Marx for more than 50 years, overlapping the time of the Frank case, but ending in 1946 before the bombing.
Marx was born in the Deep South, and his family arrived there from Germany well before the Civil War. Always intent on maintaining collegial relations with his Christian—particularly mainline Protestant—clergymen friends, Marx recoiled from the Zionist movement, which he believed ascribed to all Jews (including his congregation) a foreign ethnic identity. Like most representatives of the classical Reform movement, which was brought over from Germany, Marx and his worshippers defined Judaism as a universal religion, related to biblical Christianity and stressing ethical monotheism.
His successor, Jacob Rothschild, was of a different disposition and acted as a social activist and strong Zionist, something that the changing composition of his congregation following World War II made possible. The German Jewish old guard was dying off and being replaced by Eastern European Jews, who were not interested in joining polite Southern society and who often felt quite estranged from it. Hailing from Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, these Jews certainly did not have the deep roots in the Old South that the older Jewish community did; and when Rabbi Rothschild became an outspoken civil rights activist, his newer  congregants welcomed the move.
Author David Verbeeten documents the conflicts, mostly in Northern urban centers, between German and Eastern European Jewish communities from the late 19th century on in a well-researched monograph, The Politics of Nonassimilation: The American Jewish Left in the Twentieth Century (2017). Verbeeten throws light on this matter by underscoring the blending of radicalism and Jewish identitarianism among the newcomers. The Jews who poured in from Eastern Europe resented the remote Jewish elites for two reasons: for not being sufficiently self-assertive about their ethnic identity and for timidly allying with the Christian upper class. 
The response of the newcomers, which marked Jewish leftists thereafter, was to embrace political radicalism as a form of Jewish self-assertion. A long-standing objection that they expressed in Atlanta against Rabbi Marx was that he didn’t push back hard enough against bigoted Gentiles and that he failed to unite with black activists against the ruling class. Verbeeten might have added to his convincing argument that Eastern European Jews were not alone in the course that they took. Blacks and many others have done exactly the same, namely, express their ethnic nationalism by taking radical leftist stances.
The bombing of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation on Oct. 12, 1958, came as a likely consequence of Rothschild’s activism, and the Atlanta government and Atlanta civic organizations donated huge amounts to repair the damages. This generosity occasioned complaints from black leaders that Atlanta whites cared more about their local Jews than the blacks they had kept down for centuries. Driving Miss Daisy tells us nothing about the ethnic tensions that roiled the congregation. The new political course was a symptom and result of cultural battles that were already unfolding. In this environment, someone of Miss Daisy’s background and lineage would be more likely to repine about the troublemakers who had caused the temple’s problems, rather than becoming a fangirl of MLK.
Atlanta’s Jewish community thereafter continued to move to the left, but the bombing was less a cause than a result of political changes that were already taking place. The “Jewish Confederates” and their descendants whom Rosen depicts were no longer a critical factor in Southern Jewish society by the 1950s. As a survivor of what was an older Southern Jewry, one would not have expected Miss Daisy to move so quickly in the direction that she did.
It is also hard to imagine Boolie telling Miss Daisy shamefacedly about Florine’s support for Goldwater, as the movie suggests. Perhaps in a sequel, we might see a Boolie-like character “growing” even further—or, perhaps, the phrase that would be used in a modern sequel would be “getting woke.” He would join the black-Jewish coalition in Atlanta that promoted the Senate campaigns of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in January 2021.
Note that I am aware of obvious exceptions to the generalizations about the history of Jews in the American South I’ve offered in this commentary. German Jews who fled to the U.S. in the wake of the Nazi accession to power were often on the far left, for example; this is illustrated by the Frankfurt School in exile, whose members were often Communist sympathizers. This essay focuses on older German and Central European Jewish settlements in the U.S. going back into the early 19th century. Nazi refugees (like my own family) were another matter.
There have also been descendants of Eastern European Jews in the U.S. who do not fit my generalization, like members of the American Jewish League against Communism in the 1950s, or the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, or the Annenberg family in Philadelphia, or Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. But exceptions do not negate the possibility of generalizing about dominant ideological preferences among particular groups.
The cultural conflict to which this commentary refers played out in a historically distant fashion, when a New York Post columnist in 2015 proposed that a tile in the New York City subway depicting a Confederate battle flag be torn out. The tile, which shocked the paper’s neoconservative sensibilities, was the gift of the German Jewish owner of the New York Times, Adolph Ochs. Ochs’s family had fought for the Confederacy, and his mother Bertha was a proud charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The tile in the subway was intended to honor a cause to which Ochs’s family had been passionately devoted.

above: Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy (Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo)

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