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Review: Biography of Harry Golden spotlights forgotten voice of Civil Rights, Jewish commentary

Author Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett.
Author Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett.

In May of 2014, a historical marker was unveiled in Charlotte acknowledging the legacy and local ties of author Harry Golden. Golden lived and worked the last 40 years of his life in close proximity to the marker, writing 20 books and publishing his newspaper The Carolina Israelite.

The fact that Golden, who died in 1981, is mostly forgotten by a world that once paid close attention to his influential voice is sad and predictable.

UNC Press has taken the significant step towards rectifying that neglect with the publication of the first major Golden biography. Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett’s “Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South and Civil Rights” is comprehensive, expertly researched and engagingly written. And while it’s doubtful it will herald a Golden renaissance, Hartnett’s book performs the essential service of restoring to vibrant life a major figure in 20th century journalism, civil rights and Jewish commentary.

In 1969, the year after Golden halted the quarter-century run of his newspaper, he published his autobiography “The Right Time.” The meaning of that title might be taken various ways, but if ever a man profited by the unlikely confluence of time and place, it was Golden.

When Golden arrived in Charlotte in 1941, he was at the midpoint of his life. The only fame he had achieved was unwanted and ignominious. In his former career as a stockbroker, he had been convicted of investment fraud, and served five years in a federal penitentiary. Golden was ready to begin anew – if not completely re-invent himself. (“Only in America,” his first book and an unexpected sensation, could not have been more appropriately titled.)

“Had he chosen another southern city for his home, Golden would have been unlikely to succeed as he did,” Hartnett writes. “Charlotte had the right combination of commerce and tolerance to allow him to flourish. It was also a city with considerably less tension over the race question than urban areas deeper in the South which would not have tolerated such a rabble-rouser.”

The Carolina Israelite became the platform for Golden’s rabble-rousing. It was a solo operation in every conceivable way. From his home on Elizabeth Avenue, Golden wrote the editorials and articles, designed the layouts and answered the letters.

The Israelite covered a wide range of topics, from Yiddish customs to historical anecdotes to international news. But it was Golden’s relentless ridicule of the South’s Jim Crow “laws” that elevated the idiosyncratic newspaper. To counter long-standing policies of racial segregation, Golden offered provocative “solutions” that contained just the right combination of logic and satire. For example, his “Vertical Integration Plan” proposed removing all chairs from segregated schools, since Southern whites didn’t mind standing with blacks – only sitting with them.

By the late 1950s, subscriptions to his paper had peaked, and Golden was a household name. He appeared regularly on television and in syndicated newsprint, expressing his garrulous opinions on politics, history, culture and Judaism. His best-sellers, which appeared almost annually, were conversational in nature, filled with ethnic humor and nostalgia for the Lower East Side of his youth.

But equal rights was Golden’s greatest cause. Hartnett writes in her introduction, “Golden used his celebrity to push for civil rights with a single-mindedness that set him apart. He fought in and covered that war, and he did it with a potent mix of bravery, humor, anger, and hope.”

“Carolina Israelite” is an enlightening biography of a man Kimberly Hartnett refers to as an “irrepressible contrarian, both humanitarian and mountebank, an old-fashioned newspaperman who blogged before blogs existed.” There will never be another like him.

Sam Shapiro is a librarian and program coordinator for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Non-fiction

Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

UNC Press; 368 pages

Author readings

7 p.m., Monday, June 1, The Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham

7 p.m. Tuesday, June 2, Quail Ridge Books & Music, Ridgewood Shopping Center, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh

Kimberly Marlowe Harnett will give a free talk, “Remembering Harry Golden,” at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, in Lerner Hall, Jewish Community Center, 5007 Providence Rd., 28226.

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