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.
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.
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.
Among the estimated 250,000 in attendance were groups from churches and synagogues. Organizers wanted to be as inclusive as possible.
Amy Bookbinder, daughter of civil rights advocate Hyman Bookbinder, who attended the march:
My mother and I arrived the morning of the march. While I sensed the excitement as the speakers addressed the crowd, it was the crowd itself that I recall most vividly — the signs, the chanting, the singing, the holding strangers’ hands, the buses that arrived from places near and far, the wide streets completely filled with people from as far ahead and far behind me as I could see, as we marched together to the gathering place where people stood, sat and leaned on each other in the sweltering heat, to hear the speakers. We were one huge diverse family, and I knew we had come together in common cause and that I was lucky to be there, with these wonderful people.
Ellen Bookbinder Cohen, daughter of Hyman Bookbinder:
I drove down in a car [from New York] with six people and the car broke down on the way to the march. We heard the speech, but over loudspeakers. The traffic was unbelievable. It was enormous, bumper-to-bumper traffic. But the atmosphere was incredible, the friendliness. I don’t even remember if I met my father there. I remember the warmth, the togetherness, the peacefulness. No violence, no nothing.
[My father] spent most of his summers in Europe involved in national Jewish affairs. He flew back for the march. He flew to New Jersey, where we lived, and he and I flew down to Washington.
The stage was the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and on those steps there was seating for a number of people. I actually sat in the first row. It was extremely hot. It was Washington, D.C., at the end of August. The interesting thing about it, I wore a suit and I never took off my jacket, and a lot of people didn’t even though it was blistering hot. A lot of people coming in from church groups were dressed in their Sunday best. The heat didn’t stop people. There are wonderful photographs of people who dangled their feet in the pond to cool off. I sat there from before it started to the very end, and it was sunny, humid, an extraordinarily hot day, but it didn’t matter.
They were fenced in where they were speaking. I went up to the fence, a wooden fence held up by wires erected for the day, and I saw a guy walking towards the fence and wearing sunglasses and a beard, and it was Paul Newman, the actor. I said: “Paul Newman! Paul Newman!” and he sort of waved at me.
It was hot, but the atmosphere was electric. It was the greatest day I’ve experienced in American life. For me as a Jew it was religious, like Yom Kippur, a nation atoning for its sins.
One name you should know: Kivie Kaplan, who became president of the NAACP. I was walking with Kivie and some other people, and we were accosted by a nudnik group on the way. The march brought out idealists, but also crackpots and lunatics. But the guy talking at us was Malcolm X. He knew Kivie and begrudgingly respected him and said you are betting on the wrong horse. This is not the future. This day is phony, and Martin Luther King is as phony as the $3 bill; it’s false leadership. But Kivie bantered right back with him.
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.
People wondered, “Who speaks right before King speaks?”
[Prinz’s] talk is not even known, let alone remembered next to King’s speech.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 email@example.com