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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One year after the march, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin. Reflecting back on the march 50 years later, many believe more could have been accomplished if black and Jewish leaders were as fully committed to other causes as they were for the March on Washington.

Amy Bookbinder:

As we come together to celebrate the first March on Washington, sadly, we are reminded that we are not in a post-racial era and that clearly there is still a need to gather collectively to address issues of racism and other forms of oppression. The [George] Zimmerman trial and ITS resulting verdict have sparked needed conversation about race and new calls for legislative and executive action to end racial profiling and a failed justice system.

Jonathan Rieder

It’s an important moment of Jewish life to think about what remains of this. That spirit has less obvious visible incarnations, but I think it’s still there. Jews were voting for Obama; I don’t think those currents have disappeared. But what do younger millennial Jews know about that world that was embodied in part of Jewish identity?

Peter Geffen:

We show a portion of that speech at the Heschel School assembly commemorating King Day. I watch the reaction of little children whose grandparents were involved: They sit in complete awe.

It was a magical moment. [King] was captivated by the crowd, and the crowd was captivated by him. It’s very hard today to talk about this, because we don’t have public speakers like that. I can hear that speech today and have the same emotional response I did then.

A good deal of my emotional life is linked with Dr. King and that era in a very profound way. My only wish is we make certain that going forward the Jewish community continues to recognize the significance of those years for our community. We were given an opportunity to act for others the way others did not act for us. That opportunity, that moral obligation, that ethical mandate remains. It will only continue if we educate in all our institutional settings.

Simon Aronson:

To me the most important black leader was A. Philip Randolph. My father always told me once the March happened, it was always remembered from then on as King’s march, but this was not Martin Luther King’s March until that moment. This march was a vision of A. Philip Randolph from at least 15 years before.

Later in life [my father] did reflect from a very theoretical base. He said he kind of viewed the March on Washington as the impetus for future groups having self-identification, to do things politically — the women’s movement, [people with] disabilities.

I know my father was disappointed that however united the March on Washington was, they left women out. There was not one woman on the front line. Every one of the major groups was male dominated. The National Council of Negro Women he said was a real pre-eminent group and had been snubbed.

Al Vorspan:

What has happened over the decades of nostalgia and history, it’s become basically a black march featuring Martin Luther King and a great speech. But the truth is, it was a genuinely inter-religious thing, and the backbone of the March on Washington, like the backbone of the entire civil rights movement of that time, was the black-Jewish coalition. It’s bothered me that over the years the role of the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations, and on the other side, the NAACP, have been faded out of the picture.

Op-ed pieces now don’t even mention Jewish participation. Now it sounds nostalgic, but without the black-Jewish alliance there was no civil rights movement. Those were the strong, powerful central ingredients, and all the rest added on that. Those two were inseparable, and when together were very powerful. I think it jolted the president, Congress and the conscience of the American people.

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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