Civil Rights Movement
Quantifying White and Jewish
Participation and Support

Bruce Hartford May 2024

From time to time this archive is queried about the extent of white and Jewish participation in, or support of, the Freedom Movement. It's a simple question, but objective and reliable data sources are limited (see partial list below). Where factual data is not available, my estimates are based on my personal experience and anecdotal evidence from other Freedom Movement veterans.

Short Twitter-Length Answer: The Civil Rights Movement was overwhelmingly composed of and led by Black Americans, with a small number of white participants and some politically-significant white political and financial support in the North.

Summary Answer:

In the South, the great majority of the many, many, tens of thousands who endured firings, evictions, arrests, beatings, and murders were Black. Except for the summer projects, I estimate that on average less than 10% of boots-on-the-ground, bodies-on-the-line, civil rights activists with organizations like SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and NAACP were white (the majority of them northerners).

In the North, I believe that the majority of adults who were arrested or faced police violence in the freedom struggle were Black. My guesstimate is that white adults comprised perhaps 25-45% depending on location and year. But because so few nonwhites were able to gain admission to northern colleges, the great majority of students active in northern civil rights protests were white. Which meant that at some times and places in the North, student-based protests were majority white — on occasion overwhelmingly so.

Among white southerners, political support for racial equality and civil rights was minuscule. In the North, a significant portion of whites — at times a majority — politically supported ending Jim Crow segregation and denial of voting rights in the South. But to my best recollection, support for ending northern-style job discrimination and defacto school and housing segregation rarely, if ever, gained majority support among northern whites.

[For this discussion, "participation in" is defined as organizing, protesting, attending public meetings, and attempting to register to vote when it was dangerous to do so; "support for" is defined as donating funds, signing petitions, writing letters to officials, voting for or working to elect pro-civil rights politicians, and expressing political sympathy for anti-racist goals, strategies, and tactics. "South" refers to the 16-state Census definition and "North" to all the other states.]

Diving Down into the Details

Year in and year out, the Movement in the South was overwhelmingly Black with just a fraction of white participation. The national, white-owned mass media disproportionately focused its attention on white participation and thereby exaggerated and overemphasized it. I and others estimate that a significant portion of that small number of white participants were Jewish.

Civil Rights Workers. The total number of full-time field secretaries and support staff working in the South between 1960-1968 for CORE and SNCC varied across the years. The proportion of them who were white also fluctuated over time, location, and organization. My best guess estimate, is that for most of that period whites made up 5-10% with temporary spikes to higher percentages in the months immediately after the summer projects. The proportion of SCLC staff who were white was lower, and that of the NAACP in the South lower still. For SNCC and CORE, I estimate that the proportion of their white staff who were Jewish probably ranged from between a quarter to a bit under half, for SCLC much less so.

During the 1950s and 1960s, whites were members of, and held some leadership roles in, the NAACP nationally and in the North, though much less so in the South. Throughout its history, a portion of the whites active in the NAACP were Jewish.

Bodies on the Line. On three occasions a large number white students (and some adults) were mobilized to risk jail and put their bodies on the line in the South for short periods:

Major Events: While most protesters and marchers in the South were overwhelmingly Black, there were at least three major events that included a number of whites (most of them northerners):

Northern Wing of Civil Rights Movement

In the North, most adult-oriented NAACP branches were racially integrated. And by deliberate policy so too were most CORE chapters. The ratios of Black and white in the different branches and chapters varied widely from overwhelmingly Black to more white members than Black. Black/white ratios also varied over time, with participation by whites increasing in the early and mid-60s and then declining in the late-60s. In its last year or two as an active civil rights organization, CORE became an all (or almost all) Black organization. Today, the NAACP continues as an integrated, Black-led civil rights organization.

Since adults were constrained by jobs and family responsibilities, I believe that the bulk of northern civil rights protesters in the 1960s were college students and unemployed or underemployed youth. However, since very few Black students were able to gain admission to — or afford — northern public and private colleges, most campus-based CORE and SNCC groups were overwhelmingly white.

White Political Support for the Civil Rights Movement

As you can see from this collection of national polls, support for nonwhite voting rights and ending southern segregation slowly increased from the early 1960s into the mid-1960s with the change occurring mostly among northern whites. But a majority of whites continued to oppose the protests that were slowly causing some of them to evolve on the issues. In the late 1960s, however, as the issues became more general and applied more directly to the North — and urban uprisings and "Black Militant" scare-stories dominated the news — white support for civil rights issues retreated.

Among southern whites, participation in and support for the Civil Rights Movement was minuscule. Dixiecrat politicians and segregationist organizations like the White Citizens Councils were largely successful in framing the issue as "Blacks against whites." To this day, their political descendants form the leadership of the MAGA-dominated Republican Party. And while Ku Klux Klan terrorism primarily targeted Blacks, southern white supporters of the Civil Rights Movement were also targeted — as were some local Jews and synagogues.

Among a significant portion of northern whites, however, years of struggle and sacrifice on the part of Black Americans eventually managed to frame southern Jim Crow segregation, dual white and "colored" school systems, and nonwhite voting rights as "Right versus wrong." So much so that the Freedom Movement was able to generate enough political support to force the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress (national poll: 58%-31%); and then the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (national poll: 76% in favor).

But northern white support was uneven. In 1963, for example, a Gallup poll reported that 78% of whites would leave their neighborhood if many black families moved in, and 60% had an unfavorable view of the March on Washington, stating that they felt it would cause violence and would not accomplish anything. When asked by Gallup in October of 1965 about the extent of Communist involvement in civil rights protests, 75% responded with, "A lot" or "Some," and only 6% responded, "Not at all."

Overall, the Movement was much less successful in winning white support in the North for addressing police violence and brutality, racist judicial systems, employment discrimination, and northern-style defacto school and housing segregation. By 1966, northern white support for civil rights issues had ebbed so much that a coalition of southern Dixiecrats and northern Republicans were able to block passage of the 1966 Civil Rights Act/Fair Housing Act.

Jews and the Freedom Movement

Depending on how "Jewish" is defined, between 3% to 5% of the American population in the 1960s were Jews. I and other observers believe that Jews comprised far more than 3% to 5% of those who participated in or supported the Freedom Movement — perhaps ranging from 20% to more than 50% of white participants and supporters depending on time, place, and activity. The number of Jews arrested for civil rights activities also greatly exceeded their percentage of the white population as a whole. And of the well over 40 Southern Freedom Movement activists lynched and murdered by white supremacists, six were white, and a third of those six were Jews.

Yet the percent of Jews who actively participated in movement activities was only a small fraction of the entire Jewish population (just as the percent of white activists was an even tinier fraction of the total white population). Though numbers were not tracked, I believe that the same ratios applied to social and political support — the percentage of the Jewish community who supported the Movement was much greater than the percentage of whites in general. But claims today that Jews as a whole participated in or supported the Movement are greatly exaggerated — sometimes deliberately so for current-day political purposes.

From my expeience, while some Jewish activists in the movement were religiously observant, most were more likely to be cultural or secular Jews. Their parents might (or might not) have been religious, and as children they might (or might not) have gone to temple, but as young activists few were religiously observant at the time. By contrast, my sense was that a higher portion of the white Christian activists were either actively engaged in religious observance or at least publicly presented themselves Christians.


  1. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault
  2. Freedom Summer, Doug McAdam
  3. In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's, Claybourn Carson
  4. SNCC Staff Working in Mississippi Summer 1964, unsigned SNCC
  5. Mississippi Summer Project Workers in State as of June 29, 1964, COFO report
  6. SNCC Staff Directory, undated (probably 1964 after Freedom Summer)
  7. Volunteers in the State, sorted by state and hometown. Unsigned COFO. July 3, 1964
  8. Results of SCLC's SCOPE Project, Hosea Williams (SCLC)
  9. SCOPE Campus Chapters & Volunteers, by county, June 28, 1965
  10. SCOPE Volunteers Listed by Assigned County, unsigned SCLC
  11. Public Opinion Polls on Civil Rights Movement activities 1961-1969, Gallup, Roper, Harris, etc.
  12. Public Opinion on Civil Rights: Reflections on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 blog, Roper.
  13. From the archives: 50 years ago: Mixed views about civil rights but support for Selma demonstrators, Pew.
  14. Protests Seen as Harming Civil Rights Movement in the '60s, Gallup.
  15. A Brief History of Jews and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Religious Action Center.
  16. Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, My Jewish Learning.


Copyright © Bruce Hartford


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