The Jews Who Marched on Washington With Martin Luther King

50 Years Later, Recalling Moment That Changed History

Fifty Years Ago: Rabbi Joachim Prinz (center) confers with Martin Luther King Jr. as the two prepared to speak at the historic March on Washington in 1963.
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Fifty Years Ago: Rabbi Joachim Prinz (center) confers with Martin Luther King Jr. as the two prepared to speak at the historic March on Washington in 1963.

By Seth Berkman

Published August 27, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
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Often unrecognized in making the march possible is Arnie Aronson, who advocated for civil rights for six decades. In the months leading up to the march, secret meetings were held at Aronson’s house in Rye, N.Y., where many of the logistics for the event were debated and eventually finalized.

Al Vorspan, former director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism’s commission on social action:

Arnie Aronson was indispensable. He was one of the great Jewish leaders of our generation. Arnie and Roy Wilkins [of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] were like twins. When those two set their minds to planning something, it was unbreakable. All parties leaned on Arnie for civil rights advice. He was the guy with the tools but never the publicity or grandstanding.

Hand in Hand: Arnie Aronson, far right, marches on the National Mall.
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Hand in Hand: Arnie Aronson, far right, marches on the National Mall.

Simon Aronson, son of Arnie Aronson:

This was just before my 20th birthday, and I was home in Rye for the summer. I remember two meetings — there may have been more at our home. They would’ve been in June and July of ’63.

There were a few questions standing in the way. One was, ‘Where are we going to meet?’ Because if we met at SNCC’s [The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s] offices, it looks like SNCC is leading. People were ready to call the march off. There were a lot of politics [with] people threatening to back out at the last minute. So it was trying to find a neutral place and also trying to stay out of the limelight. What my father and Roy did was to invite pretty much all the leaders to our house. They all came in and sat around our dining room table — we had a modest house — and they spent the afternoon dishing things out. I remember shaking the hand of Martin Luther King.

Bayard [Rustin] was the real hands-on, full-time operational structurer of the march. Port-o-potties were a big question. Where do you put them? How many do you need? If it’s hot, what do you do with overheating? Bayard was in charge of all of that.

I know they also talked about orders of the speeches. That meant a big deal to black leaders.

We had a little upstairs and could peer through the banister and see them talking in the dining room. My mother would serve cookies or coffee. These meetings were two to three hours. I remember my father would tell me he wanted public pressure on the Kennedy administration to pass civil rights legislation, primarily aimed at jobs. My father was disappointed in the 1964 [Civil Rights] Act; he thought the bill was emasculated. The march worked in making it a national issue, public awareness, but the bill that passed itself he thought was a real loser.


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