Dr. Shari Rogers’ new documentary Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance recounts a union that once fought injustice to create meaningful, legislative change.
Now is the critical moment for Jewish and Black communities to remember their natural allyship, says Dr. Shari Rogers, Franklin filmmaker and founder of the Michigan social justice nonprofit Spill the Honey.
While systematic racism persists and acts of hatred and antisemitism rise in our polarized society, Rogers’ new documentary Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance recounts a union that once fought injustice to create meaningful, legislative change.
“As a Jewish woman, it gives me a sense of pride to know our community — lawyers, students and rabbis — got involved to help Blacks have equal rights,” she said. “It wasn’t all Jewish people, as we show in the film, but statistically, two different communities worked together to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to accomplish things in America.”
But the groups don’t support each other like they used to, she said.
“We need to work together on today’s civil rights issues. The world is watching now in regard to racism, and young Jews especially are asking, ‘How can I help?’ We have a template and a history of a powerful partnership.”
That 95-minute template, Shared Legacies, premiered at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February, where it won its first of multiple jury prizes for bridge building. Rogers is the film’s director and head writer.
Its extensive collection of interviews from eyewitnesses, activists, Holocaust survivors and civil rights leaders has since been arousing virtual film festival audiences from L.A. to Nashville and from Cleveland to Toronto.
Rogers and executive producer Lisa Weitzman, a fellow activist and native Detroiter living in New York, say they want the film, recently embraced by schools, community organizations and social justice groups, to serve as an educational tool, promoting unity between communities and providing “a roadmap for courageous conversations.”
Detroit’s public premiere, planned for the Charles Wright H. Museum of African American History in April, was canceled due to the pandemic. But the documentary made its way into local educational platforms like the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School — where the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force has worked with students to host webinars that apply the film’s model of diverse community-building to the business world.
Blake Weissman, 20, is a student at the Ross Business School. Since spring, he’s served as national youth president of Spill the Honey Foundation, the nonprofit behind the film.
He works to bring Shared Legacies to college audiences through virtual screenings, discussions and webinars that engage students on issues like allyship, police reform and education. He also works with 17 youth ambassadors on campuses in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Ann Arbor.
In our polarized society, having a bridge-building ambassador on every college campus would be an amazing way to create “sustainable, lasting change from the inside out,” Weissman said.
While he’s passionately picking up the baton to run alongside a new generation of changemakers, Weissman knew “absolutely nothing of Black-Jewish relations,” before attending the Atlanta premiere with his family. When the credits rolled, and the original theme song played, he found himself on his feet applauding, surrounded by nearly 2,500 guests.
“It was very, very powerful, and it planted a seed in me,” he said of the film.
“This could have been a lost part of American history,” said Rogers. Since 2015, she’s traveled from Selma, Ala., to Israel, collecting nearly 90 hours of interviews from those who haven’t forgotten the union. “It was in their memories, but no one ever asked them what they witnessed,” she said.
Dating back to 1909, with the founding of the NAACP, the film explores the modern alliance between two peoples who have endured segregation, racism and violence. It discusses the pinnacle of that alliance: the friendship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel during the Civil Rights Movement.
Mutual respect and understanding of these significant leaders is credited as the catalyst for Jews joining the Civil Rights Movement, just as King and Heschel’s deaths in 1968 and 1972, respectively, point to the unraveling of the Black-Jewish bond.
Revive the Coalition
Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers of Detroit’s Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church says, “If people see the shared legacies and the work we did together, they’ll understand now is the time to revive and renew that coalition of conscience between people of goodwill, people of morality, people who have great spirits about them, to step up and stand up for freedom, justice and equality.”
Flowers, one of several Metro Detroiters in the film, says Coretta Scott King shared with him the relationship between her husband and Rabbi Heschel when Flowers was a student at Morehouse College in 1979. These conversations helped him understand the importance of being involved with the Jewish community, he says, and keeping them involved in “Black-Jewish dialogue” and movements for justice and equality. Today, he serves as a leading member of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity and has been in conversations with Morehouse since the film debuted to bring education of the alliance to the school where Dr. King graduated.
“We have far more in common than what separates us,” Flowers says, of Black and Jewish communities today, “though there are things we need to do. If we look at what worked then, it can work now.”
In addition to on-screen appearances, several Metro Detroiters played significant roles in creating the film, Rogers says, including fellow writer/narrator Shoshana Janer, film editor Stuart Shevin and friend Shari Ferber Kaufman who funded the initial filming in Selma.
Shari’s father, Fred Ferber, a Holocaust survivor living in Birmingham, is also featured in the film. Now 90, Fred says the first Black people he saw in his life were the American soldiers who rescued him from a Nazi concentration camp after the war. The film notes that soldiers like these risked their lives to bring Ferber and others their freedom, even while lacking their own freedoms at home.
Rogers credits the major fundraising of Shared Legacies to Atlanta, but Detroit, she says, is where the idea started. Years ago, she saw Dr. Clarence Jones, a lawyer and speechwriter for Dr. King and a future friend and ambassador of the film, speaking to a group of high school students at the Wright Museum in Detroit.
Jones remembers today, “I told them that much of the success the Civil Rights Movement was able to achieve was because of the substantial support we received from the Jewish community. I wasn’t just talking about financial support and contributions, but about people who actually joined and worked with us.
“To me, that’s one of the untold stories. But, I’m a witness to it.”
The film’s producers have not yet announced a general release for the Detroit area. Check out the official website, spillthehoney.com, for updated information.