He was the most famous North Carolinian in the country, for a moment back in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Today, you rarely hear his name. My children, who grew up in the 1970s a few blocks from where Harry Golden worked, do not remember him.
How and why Golden became so famous and how and why that fame drifted away so completely are questions Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett seeks to answer in her new book “Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights.”
Born in 1902, Golden grew up in a Jewish immigrant family in New York City’s Lower East Side. After a disastrous experience as a small-time stock broker and time in Federal prison for his misdeeds, Golden moved south, eventually winding up in Charlotte in 1940. He got work writing and collecting bills for a pro-labor newspaper.
With borrowed money he started his own newspaper, the Carolina Israelite, and filled it with selected news and warm personal stories.
In his paper and personal appearances he preached messages of inclusion and tolerance, coating those messages with humor. He nudged against anti-Semitism without confrontation or anger. At a meeting at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, he boomed out, “Folks, I have a secret to tell you. If Jesus put Charlotte on his itinerary for the Second Coming, I would be his contact man. This is not blasphemy. In the first place, I’m a cousin. In the second place, he would need an interpreter, for he probably doesn’t speak this ‘you-all’ business. In the third place, he would want a trained reporter. He would want to know, ‘What in hell are Presbyterians?’”
Hartnett writes that the audience loved him.
Meanwhile the little newspaper got a lot of attention all over the country, and Golden became a local celebrity. He made friends with people like Carl Sandburg and Billy Graham.
As a very liberal, pro-integration, pro-labor writer, he nevertheless gained readers and admirers because he could make people smile even when he was attacking their viewpoints.
For instance, he proposed his “Golden Vertical Negro Plan,” based on the experiences of businesses like Durham Mayor “Mutt” Evans’ store. When Evans took out the seats in his store’s dining area, blacks and whites ate comfortably together. Even under Jim Crow, the races could mix if everybody was standing. So, to deal with school integration, Golden proposed removal of all chairs from the classrooms. If all the students were standing, integration would cause no problem!
But Golden was only a minor celebrity until 1958, when his book, “Only in America,” took the country by storm, becoming an immediate best seller and surprising almost everybody except Golden.
Between 1958 and 1975 Golden wrote at least one book every year, sometimes as many as five in one year.
Something was more important than this commercial success. Hartnett explains that Golden credited the South for his writing success because it gave him the opportunity to experience “the greatest domestic news story of the 20th century.”
Hartnett writes, “He firmly believed that the changing of the South and the upheaval of its social order in the 1950s and 1960s made the entire country a better place. He relished the chance to chronicle the national reverberations of the South’s boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides, voter-registration drives, marches, and pickets.”
After a serious illness curtailed his work and he discontinued the Carolina Israelite in 1968, the nation’s attention moved to other writers. But Golden was not through. In one of his final essays, he wrote that the “road toward absolute equality is longer and more treacherous than we thought. We cannot traverse it with song and enthusiasm; we have to hack our way through prejudice, distortion, ignorance, and plain intransigence. Hard work and patience are the only blades we have.”
— D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.