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Joe McQuaid: Harry Golden, a colorful activist of the civil rights era


April 04. 2015 5:43PM

Former New Hampshire journalist Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett tells the story of writer, publisher and activist Harry Golden in "Carolina Israelite." 

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, once a reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader as well as the Concord Monitor, has put her impressive writing and research skills to good use with her compelling biography of Harry Golden. Once a regular on the New York Times' best-seller lists and a TV guest of Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, Golden's name is little known today.

Perhaps that will change with the publication of "Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden made us care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights'.' Available now on Amazon for Kindle, it will be in book stores in early May.

The book is as much a story about the struggle for civil rights for blacks in the South of the 1950s and 1960s as it is the story of a Ukrainian Jewish emigre to New York City. Golden went from convicted stock hustler in the pre-crash 1920s to an engaging and witty southern newspaper publisher who disarmed political, social and religious foes with irreverent humor and a sharp intellect.

"Carolina Israelite" was the odd name Golden chose for his on-again, off-again and often odd monthly newspaper that he began publishing in his adopted hometown of Charlotte, N.C., in the 1940s. The paper regularly included his own commentaries on matters of race and religion.

It also showed off his gift for showmanship.

Golden would send gift subscriptions, unbidden, to well-known politicians and others across the nation, and then promote his paper by listing these prominent people as among his readers.

Some ignored him but some came to appreciate Golden's humor and candor. He numbered among his friends the poet Carl Sandburg, and among his acquaintances politicians Adlai Stevenson and Robert F. Kennedy, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King Jr.

But Golden also made and kept friends in the deeply conservative South who, in the 1960s, were very much opposed to his ppish

push for integration. These included nationally-known newspaper editor and columnist James Kilpatrick and several southern governors. (When Golden's house burned, Kilpatrick was among many sending aid.)

They admired Golden's courage and his ability to use ridicule to argue his case.

For instance, Golden promoted his "Vertical Negro Plan" as the way to end segregation in schools.

He had noticed that segregation seemed important when blacks and whites were seated (think buses, schools, lunch counters). But there were no problems when the two races stood in the same lines at grocery stores, banks, post offices.

"It is only when the Negro 'sets' that the fur beings to fly," Golden wrote. He reasoned that schools could save a lot of money, and segregationists could save face, if desks and chairs were removed. That way, black and white children, standing, could be taught in the same schools.

This was one of his "Golden Plans." Another was to eliminate anti-Semitism. He recommended that every Jewish-affiliated group in the country fight anti-Semitism by urging that "all Jews in America become Christians, en masse, overnight."

Predicting that most Jews would want to join the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, "The Episcopalians and Presbyterians would organize a strong Anti-Defamation League. They would go from door to door whacking anti-Semites on the head: 'Shh, you don't know what you are saying,' And so within a few years this form of insanity will have completely disappeared from our national life."

Golden's compilations of his columns became national best-sellers, including "Only in America." A Broadway play based on the book was short-lived. That first book also caused his past as a convicted felon to resurface. But the press was largely sympathetic and the book sold even faster.

But he could also be a serious writer. His "A Little Girl Is Dead" book was an examination of the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew who was convicted on flimsy evidence, of the death of a 13-year-old girl. The governor commuted his death sentence, but a mob broke into the jail and lynched Franks.

Golden was sent to Israel by Life magazine to provide coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the evil brains behind Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews. But his writing didn't please the editors (and the assignment upset some high-brow critics), and that project was cut short.

Because of his admiration for Lyndon Johnson's civil rights actions, he stuck with LBJ on the Vietnam war, much to the chagrin of fellow liberals.

He fearlessly promoted integration in his writings and in speeches across the country. But he was appalled by the Black Power preachings and tactics of those who thought Dr. King's peaceful protests too timid. Yet he admired the passion of a younger generation.

Author Hartnett notes that Golden was "struck by how the questions asked of him by these students differed from those raised by his other audiences."

He was now asked, "What can one person do?"

His quiet but motivating reply, "The next time someone uses the (N-word), put your hand on his wrist and say, 'Please, not in front of me.' And perhaps he will never use this word again in front of anyone. That is something."

Harry Golden was clearly something. Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett's "Carolina Israelite'' shows that to interesting effect.

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