Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year will be commemorated just before the 75th anniversary of a remarkable but little-known campaign by American Zionists and African-Americans that helped defeat racial segregation in Baltimore, Maryland.
This story began in the autumn of 1946, when the Zionist activists known as the Bergson Group sponsored a Broadway play called A Flag is Born, authored by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Ben Hecht. Starring young Marlon Brando and Yiddish theater luminaries Paul Muni and Celia Adler, A Flag is Born depicted the plight of Holocaust survivors in postwar Europe and the fight for Jewish independence in British Mandatory Palestine.
The London Evening Standard expressed horror that large audiences were flocking to what it called the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States. Many American publications took a different view: Time magazine called the play “colorful theater and biting propaganda,” while Life magazine complemented its “wit and wisdom.”
After a successful 10-week run on Broadway, A Flag is Born was scheduled to be performed in various cities around the country, including the National Theater in Washington, DC. However, the National Theater barred African-Americans. Hecht and 32 other prominent playwrights had recently announced they would not permit their works to be staged in such theaters. Hence, the Washington performance was rescheduled to the Maryland Theater in Baltimore.
But the controversy was not over. It turned out that while the Maryland Theater did not bar African-Americans, it did restrict them to the balcony, which bigots nicknamed with a derogatory phrase. Alerted by local NAACP activists, the Bergson Group devised a good cop-bad cop strategy to confront the segregationists.
Just hours before the first curtain, Bergson Group representatives informed the theater management that if the seating discrimination was not rescinded, the NAACP would picket the show with signs declaring, “There is No Difference Between Jim Crow in Maryland and Persecution [of Jews] in Palestine.” The group members also threatened to personally escort several African-Americans to the show as their guests, to be seated in the white sections.
The pressure succeeded. The Maryland Theater management agreed to temporarily lease the theater to the Bergson Group. That made the theater’s ticket agents employees of the group and subject to whatever seating policy the activists chose to adopt. As a result, a dozen African-Americans attended the opening night performance on February 12, 1947, and “were seated indiscriminately, without untoward results,” the Baltimore Afro-American reported. Fittingly, February 12 is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
Exuberant NAACP leaders hailed the tradition-shattering victory over racism that was achieved by the alliance of black and Zionist activists. The NAACP used that victory as potent ammunition in its battles to desegregate other Baltimore theaters in the years that followed.
The Bergson Group used the proceeds from A Flag is Born to purchase a ship, renamed the S.S. Ben Hecht, which attempted to bring more than 600 Holocaust survivors from Europe to Mandatory Palestine in the spring of 1947. The ship was intercepted by the British navy and the passengers were taken to detention camps in Cyprus.
The British authorities decided to place the crew members, most of them American volunteers, in the Acre prison in Mandatory Palestine. That turned out to be a big mistake, as while there, the Ben Hecht crewmen mingled with imprisoned members of Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi (Irgun) paramilitary organization. The Americans provided crucial assistance in the preparations by Irgun members for a mass breakout. As dramatically portrayed in the film Exodus, more than 200 Jewish and Arab prisoners escaped in what the international media described as the most spectacular jailbreak of modern times.
Many previously unknown details about the voyage of the S.S. Ben Hecht are presented in the fascinating new book Without Permission: Conversations, Letters, and Memoirs of Henry Mandel (Cherry Orchard Books), about one of the crew members. Edited by Mandel’s grandson, Samuel Flaks, the book is a timely reminder – so pertinent to the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day – of the importance of taking action, even without permission, in order to combat injustice.
“I am proud that it was my play which terminated one of the most disgraceful practices of our country’s history,” a beaming Ben Hecht declared after the opening performance in Baltimore. “For the first time in the history of the state of Maryland, Negroes were permitted to attend the legitimate theater without discrimination. I am proud that it was A Flag is Born which they attended without insult. Breaking down this vicious and indecent tradition in Maryland is worthy of the high purpose for which A Flag is Born was conceived and written. The incident is a powerful testimony to the proposition that to fight discrimination and injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group.”
The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books on Jewish history and the Holocaust.