By Arthur S. Meyers ~
The following is an excerpt of “Democracy in the Making: The Open Forum Lecture Movement,” a soon-to-be-published book written by Arthur S. Meyers that discusses the trans-denominational community learning movement that began in Boston in 1908 and swept across the country, and how it can be applied in today’s communities. For more information on “Democracy in the Making,” which will be published this fall, visit the Roman & Littlefield Publishing Company online at www.roman.com.
Arthur Meyers is director of Russell Library in Middletown, and a member of Congregation Beth Sholom Rodfe Zedek in Chester.
In 1923, in west-central Indiana, Rabbi Joseph Fink of Temple Israel was vice-chairman of the Terre Haute Open Forum. The rabbi was ordered by the Ku Klux Klan to resign as president of the Welfare League, the predecessor to the Community Chest and later the United Way. He refused and they invited him to a night meeting on a deserted farm. Before 300 hooded members, he derided the cowardice of men who concealed their identities under the guise of Americanism. A few days later, without stating a reason, the Klan sent the Welfare League a check for $1,800. (The Klan did not likely realize the irony in “18.”)
In the same year, in Hammond, in the northwest corner of the state, more than 5,000 regalia-clad Klansmen marched, with an additional 300-400 in regular clothing. “Spectators lined the streets in support.” Four crosses were burned in the area, and Rabbi Max Bretton spoke of a burning on the grounds of Temple Beth-El. A year later, on Election Night, the Klan-backed candidate for Governor swept the state. The newspaper headlined that “A Cross Blazed In Every Park of Hammond.” One week later, Rabbi Bretton and his congregation began the Beth-El Open Forum. Two nights later, thirteen robed Klansmen visited the new African Methodist Episcopal church, donated $100, and extended words of greeting to the congregation. Klan members marching into a church was a frequent tactic they used to intimidate congregations.
At the time, Indiana led the country in the number of Klan members. It was the largest organization of any kind in the state, with more members than veterans’ organizations and even Methodism, the leading Protestant denomination.
There was a time when American rabbis had to be personally brave to take a stand on social issues. It was also a period when we had a structure for civil discourse in the nation.
Begun in Boston in 1908 as the Ford Hall Forum, with initial funding by the Baptist Social Union, the movement spread to hundreds of cities, and became the Open Forum. The locally planned, trans-denominational public lectures, followed by fully open question periods, were characterized as “the striking of mind upon mind.”
This unique movement, that once reached thousands of people, from a wide range of economic backgrounds and faiths, has been lost until now in the historical record. Understanding the initiative provides fresh insight into the nation’s history and broadens our awareness of personal and community courage, democratic planning, and broad-based learning. In bringing forward the courageous clergy and community leaders, we can recover an important path to civil discourse for our time.