Crowd outside the theater. Photo courtesy the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
by Rafael Medoff
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.
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, “Flag” 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 called the play “colorful theater and biting propaganda,” while Life complimented 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. But the National barred African-Americans, and 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 for 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 “n— heaven.” 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before the first curtain, Bergson officials informed the theater management that if the seating discrimination was not rescinded, the NAACP would picket the show with signs declaring, “There is No Difference Between Jim Crow in Maryland and Persecution [of Jews] in Palestine.”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 Bergsonites also threatened to personally escort several African-Americans to the show as their guests, to be seated in the regular 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 Feb. 12, 1947, and “were seated indiscriminately, without untoward results,” the Baltimore Afro-American reported. February 12 is, fittingly, 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 to follow.
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 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 Palestine. That turned out to be a big mistake. The Ben Hecht crewmen mingled there with imprisoned members of Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi underground militia. The Americans provided crucial assistance in the preparations by the 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 called the most spectacular jail break of modern times.
Many previously unknown details about the voyage of the Ben Hecht are presented in a fascinating new book about one of the crew members, “Without Permission: Conversations, Letters, and Memoirs of Henry Mandel” (Cherry Orchard Books). Edited by Mandel’s grandson, Samuel Flaks, “Without Permission” 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 theatre 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 ‘Flag’ was conceived and written. The incident is forceful testimony to the proposition that to fight discrimination and injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group.”
Dr. Rafael Medoff 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.