Fifty years ago, an estimated quarter of a million people assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The event unified a multitude of races, genders and religions, capped by the iconic image of Martin Luther King Jr. visualizing his dream for equality.
Many American Jews were active participants and leaders in the march. Arnie Aronson was a little-known but crucial organizer; Rabbi Uri Miller recited the opening prayer; Rabbi Joachim Prinz delivered a stirring speech just before King’s historic words.
The Forward spoke with descendants of these men and others who took the stage and filled the National Mall on August 28, 1963. Here, in their own words, are their memories and their assessment of what the March on Washington has come to mean half a century later.
Jonathan Rieder, sociology professor, Barnard College:
The Jewish involvement in the march in many ways embodied a very resonant moment in Jewish cultural life in America, as well as a high point of the black-Jewish alliance. A lot of individual Jews felt bad for blacks and felt it was an important thing to support. Groups like the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress were utterly committed to the march. They saw it as central to being a Jew.
Jonathan Prinz, son of Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke at the march (listen to his speech here):
The idea of a march like that — doing what individuals and small groups had been doing in the South — was a very exciting thing. There were many people who thought this would be a disastrous activity, that there would be violence, asking, “How can these people get together?” That it would be a thing of trouble.
Peter A. Geffen, founder of the Heschel School, in Manhattan; volunteered for King during the 1960s:
Leading up there was all kinds of fear of being anti-American, but it was an astounding example of American civil society standing before the Congress and president and saying, “We must now have change.” Everything was different from that moment on.
Batya Miller, daughter of Rabbi Uri Miller, who recited the day’s prayer at the march:
[My father] was rabbi of Beth Jacob in Baltimore at the time. For years before the march, he had been giving sermons on civil rights to his congregants who were not always sympathetic. One of my most vivid memories as a young girl in Baltimore was the drive my father and I took through the black ghetto; he wanted me to see how poor black people lived. And so his participation in the march as president of the Synagogue Council of America was not merely formulaic, but very personal for him, and the best way possible to personally contribute to the advancement of racial justice.