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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Rabbi Joachim Prinz gave the march’s penultimate speech, wherein he compared the plight of blacks in America to the persecution faced by Jews in Nazi Germany (Prinz had escaped Germany in 1937). His speech is often overlooked next to King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, but it was a personal highlight for many Jews in attendance.

Jonathan Rieder:

People wondered, “Who speaks right before King speaks?”

Role Model: Peter Geffen, right, said Martin Luther King greatly influenced his life.
courtesy of peter geffen
Role Model: Peter Geffen, right, said Martin Luther King greatly influenced his life.

Peter Geffen:

[Prinz’s] talk is not even known, let alone remembered next to King’s speech.

Jonathan Rieder:

Prinz had been a major rabbi in Berlin, fled the Nazis in Germany. Prinz’s statement is quintessential of what Milton Himmelfarb called the Jewish particularism, the definition in that period that Jewish self-interest and moral concern converged to create protections for all minorities. Like what goes around, comes around.

Jonathan Prinz:

I think that it is fair to say that despite all the speeches he had given and all the things he had been involved in — including speeches in Berlin during the Nazi regime — I think in his own feelings that was the most important speech he ever gave. It was that for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his attachment to this country. This was very much an expression of his identity with this country, one he came to as a refugee from Nazi Germany and gave him a home and a place that he was very happy in. Despite the fact that English was not his native language, he was a forceful speaker in English and loved English. He identified with the civil rights movement from the moment he stepped off the boat from Germany in 1937. He understood very early on there was a direct connection between the plight of African Americans and the Jewish people. He had to be identified with it.

I was still working as a rabbi in those days, and we shared a pulpit at Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, N.J. When we arrived in Washington, his staff from the American Jewish Congress handed him a draft of the speech. He was one of the great orators of the American pulpit and spoke without notes. There had to be a written speech because it had to be distributed to the press and they had a very strict time limit. He got the draft and didn’t really like it and rewrote it in the middle of the night and handed that rewritten text to his staff in Washington, and they typed it up and distributed it.

Al Vorspan:

It meant everything. I admired him immensely. I love what he said. I think that was absolutely essential in the whole dialogue. My reaction was gratitude to Joachim, that he had insisted that be a part of the program.

Jonathan Prinz:

Elements of what he said were things he had been saying for years, just as Martin Luther King’s speech tied together a lot of things he had been saying for years.

I had seen my father speak many times; the element of seeing him speak before a large crowd was not that unique, and I [wasn’t nervous about] him being able to carry that off.

He didn’t control the agenda, and why they structured it that way [speaking before King], I have no idea. They certainly were aware of his oratorical skills, but they made that decision. He never really talked about that. Mahalia Jackson sang before, and she was incredible. The first thing he said was, “I wish I could sing.”

If you read that speech, it’s amazing how current that speech is; it could be delivered today. It really had two themes in it — one, the theme of silence and that we can’t be silent and onlookers. And boy, are there a lot of silent onlookers today. The second theme is neighbors — the idea we are all each other’s neighbors and living in the same neighborhood.

The speech is amazingly current, and I think that’s something you can say about my father’s career. He was always looking forward and involved, and I think that what’s happened today is many religious leaders are neither current nor really engaged in the world. He was not the only clergyman those days who had a deep involvement and engagement in society. I think today many religious institutions have become very insular.


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