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Jewish Journal

Civil Rights Redux

The director reaches back to his youth to complete his film quartet

by Marvin Caplan

December 2, 1999 | 7:00 pm

"Farther Along: A Civil Rights Memoir"

by Marvin Caplan.

Louisiana State University Press, $29.95

Black and white liberals, among them an inordinate number of Jews, who fought the civil rights battles of the 1940s, '50s and '60s, are now often seen as faintly archaic figures.

Except for Martin Luther King Jr., few of their names are remembered, and even some of their victories, such as affirmative action legislation, are now under widespread attack.

It is the merit of Marvin Caplan's "Farther Along" to recall the idealism and fervor of the pioneers in a struggle that changed the face of American society and went a long way in overcoming deep-rooted institutional prejudices.

Caplan was born into a family that boasted generations of kosher butchers, first in Russia and then in his native Philadelphia. He was liberated from following the family tradition by joining the army during World War II.

After his discharge, Caplan accepted the invitation of army buddy Harry Bernstein, later to serve with distinction as labor editor of the Los Angeles Times, to establish the monthly "Southern Jewish Outlook" in Richmond, Virginia.

One of the sprightliest chapters in the book describes the efforts of the two young vets to keep the paper afloat, pugnaciously dedicated to end racial segregation and discrimination in the capital of the old Confederacy.

In the morning, Caplan might sell a badly needed ad to the Jewish owner of a large laundry and dry cleaning establishment, and in the afternoon turn out to support the black women pickets trying to unionize the place.

He also did battle, during Israel's War of Independence, against the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism and founded the local chapter of the Labor Zionist Organization of America.

After four years in Richmond, Caplan moved on to Washington, D.C. and became a reporter for the Fairchild chain of business publications, but he carried his ideals and ideology with him.

He became a founder and first president of Neighbors, Inc., a group that formed the first integrated housing bloc in the strictly segregated national capital.

After participating in the civil rights struggle as a grassroots volunteer for 15 years, Caplan became a full-time professional in 1963 as executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

For the next 18 years, Caplan was a participant and ringside observer of the country's most crucial civil rights battles, which he ably documents.

Caplan fought the good fight not only in the halls of Congress, but an equally difficult one within his own family. Despite the clear unhappiness of his three children, he insisted on their attendance at a 90 percent black public school, which had been deserted by almost all other white students.

Now in his seventies and still living in an integrated Washington neighborhood, Caplan, a widower, looks back on his life's work with pride, but few illusions. "In the decades that followed [the '60s], victories that once seemed indisputable advances to us -- affirmative action, racial integration, for instance -- are often questioned by the very ones we thought would benefit from them," he writes.

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