As Baltimore faces unresolved racial issues, we who love this city can draw inspiration from two local Jewish heroes of the civil rights movement. To Baltimoreans of the 1960s, Malcolm Sherman and Rabbi Morris Lieberman exemplified the ethical teachings of Hillel.
“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Mal Sherman, who moved to Baltimore to be close to his wife’s family, remained at heart a Baltimorean for the rest of his life. It was here that Sherman earned his real estate license, established Mal Sherman Realtors, and began to challenge a segregated real estate market that dictated where Jews, blacks, and white Christians could live. This division traces back to the 1910 Baltimore city law, the first in the nation that prohibited blacks from moving to white blocks and vice versa. After the Supreme Court overturned the law in 1917, home buyers signed covenants promising not to sell their homes to people of a different race, including a separate discriminatory category for Jews. After World War II predatory block busting encouraged panic-selling by white Christians and Jews who feared plummeting housing values when a black family moved into their neighborhood.
When Sherman entered this real estate market in 1949, his goals were simple. As he stated in the Maryland Realtor, “I wanted to help families find a better quality of life.”
Sherman tried to stabilize a white neighborhood decimated by blockbusting by urging white homeowners to stay put. He engaged with another realtor to open up white neighborhoods voluntarily and encouraged other realtors to join them. He found a partner in Mayor Theodore McKeldin, who helped Sherman’s group voluntarily integrate ten apartment buildings. But voluntary measures had limited power. So Sherman testified on behalf of open housing legislation wherever he could.
Throughout this period, Sherman and his family belonged to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, then led by Rabbi Morris Lieberman. This is where the stories of two great men converge. In 1961 Rabbi Lieberman established the Social Consciousness Committee in response to early civil rights struggles. As part of Rabbi Lieberman’s civil rights efforts, he led multi-faith clergy in escorting a distinguished black leader into two segregated restaurants. When their efforts failed, the press coverage resulted in the formation of the Clergyman’s Interfaith Committee on Human Rights. Later, in 1963, Rabbi Lieberman was among several clergy arrested during a massive non-violent demonstration to integrate Gwynn Oak Park, a privately owned amusement park that served only whites.
Rabbi Lieberman used his arrest to speak passionately before his congregation about what he did and why he did it. On Rosh Hashannah 1963, Lieberman acknowledged that some of his congregants might disapprove of him speaking about racial equality, claiming that it was a political topic.
But for Lieberman, racism was a spiritual issue. He recalled a visit to post-war Dachau, which took him past churches near roads and tracks used by death trains, death trucks, and death buses. Said Lieberman, “I could only think to myself, What did the priests and pastors talk about during those days? What did they preach to their congregations at Christmas time and at Easter?” He wondered if their congregants asserted that the death camps were a political matter, not a religious one, or if congregants said, “But they are only Jews.”
In the Rosh Hashannah sermon, he recalled, too, the Haggadah which explicitly states, “In each generation each Jew must regard himself as though he, in his own person, had been a slave unto Pharoah.” This double memory of Dachau and the Haggadah compelled Lieberman to speak out “for the rights of those who are still in the slavery of discrimination and degradation.”
Sherman approached his rabbi the next day and, according to the book But Not Next Door, asked what he could do to help integrate housing.
Lieberman said, “What do you mean what can you do? You’re more powerful than any priest or any rabbi. You can open up neighborhoods and make it possible for everybody to live wherever they want to live.”
Sherman said, “Rabbi, if I do this, I’ll be run out of town. People don’t want it.”
Lieberman replied, “Well, you asked me what you could do.”
Sherman went home and talked with his wife, who encouraged him to act on his beliefs. He started making open housing sales in white neighborhoods, including the sale of a Pikesville home to John Mackey, a black player for the Baltimore Colts, and later a home for Baltimore Orioles superstar Frank Robinson. Working with Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., Sherman continued to seek sellers in white neighborhoods who would accept offers from black families. But according to Sherman, other real estate companies would no longer deal with him and shunned him, forcing him out of business.
His family also paid a price. In a recent speech to the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, Sherman’s daughter Wendy recalled that people would call their house and “threaten to bomb it.” But Sherman’s family also received a gift–social action as a way of life.
In 1967, James Rouse, a deeply religious man, asked Sherman to join him in developing a new city, Columbia, which would be open to people of all races and religions. Sherman, too, “felt the power of G-d in my life” as he helped Rouse build this integrated community, today considered one of the most successful planned communities in the United States.
Rabbi Morris Lieberman died suddenly in 1970 at the age of 61, leaving a legacy of social action for his congregation and the larger Baltimore religious community.
After living briefly in Atlanta, Sherman returned to work in the Baltimore-Washington area, where he died in 2009.
May the lives of these men give us all the courage to resolve today’s lingering racial issues.
Also appeared in Baltimore Jewish Times
Lieberman, Morris. The Legacy of Rabbi Morris Lieberman. Baltimore: 1977.
“Wendy Sherman: Iran deal will make world safer” in San Diego Jewish World, April 27, 2015.
Mack, Michael L. But Not Next Door: Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc.: The First Forty Years. 2002.