As we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and the majestic “I Have a Dream” speech, we should reflect on the singular role the Jewish community played throughout the civil rights struggle and, in particular, remember with pride Jewish participation in the March on Washington itself.
No segment of American society outside of the black community provided as strong and consistent support for Dr. King and the struggle for civil rights as did the American Jewish community. For his part, Dr. King was a tireless advocate of the State of Israel and expressed total disdain for anti-Semitism — including within the black community.
That close black-Jewish alliance was reflected not only in the many thousands of Jews who were among the 250,000 participants in the March, but also in the array of Jewish leaders who sat on the dais behind Dr. King and the other speakers, including Shad Polier of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Leon Foyer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and George Maislan of the United Synagogue of America.
Among the fourteen featured speakers that day were two major Jewish leaders of the time; Rabbi Uri Miller, president of the Synagogue Council of America, who delivered the prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, who spoke near the end of the program, directly between a sublimely uplifting spiritual medley by Mahalia Jackson and Dr. King’s own historic oration.
Rabbi Miller prayed that those assembled on the Mall should not voice empty words, “not even sincere ideals projected into some Messianic future, but actualities expressed in our society in concrete and tangible form now.” He expressed the hope that the March on Washington would “sensitize all Americans and especially those in positions of power and authority to this concept of equality” and asked for the nation to understand that “when we deprive our fellow man of bread and dignity, we negate the Tselem Elohim—the image of God in man—and delay the fulfillment of His Kingdom.”
The subsequent speech by Rabbi Prinz had tremendous power, not only because of his considerable oratorical ability, but because of his biography. Prinz was born in Germany and as a young rabbi in Berlin actively opposed the rise of Nazism before emigrating to the U.S. in 1937. Tracing the Jewish struggle for freedom and dignity back to the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and through the ghettoes of Europe, Prinz intoned, “It is for those reasons that it is not simply sympathy and compassion for the black population of America that motivates us…It is a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.”
Prinz then said, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community of Berlin, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” Pointing out that Germans in the 1930’s “had become a nation of silent onlookers” in the face of Nazi hatred, brutality and mass murder, Prinz intoned, “America must not become a nation of onlookers, America must not remain silent, not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us…”
The speeches by Rabbi Miller and Rabbi Prinz that historic day in Washington were powerful invocations of the three thousand year old Jewish prophetic tradition to repair the world and spearhead the battle for justice and freedom, not only for ourselves, but for all human beings. It was that prophetic tradition to which Martin Luther King turned for strength and inspiration in leading the struggle for freedom for African-Americans. And it was that tradition and history that impelled so many thousands of Jews of all denominations to go South as Freedom Riders during the 1960’s to help blacks overcome segregation and secure the right to vote, including Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two young New York Jews who were murdered together with an African-American James Chaney by Klu Klux Klansmen and local police officials near Philadelphia, Mississippi in June, 1964.
It is critically important that we commemorate with pride the singular Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement and the March of Washington not only because it was one of the most inspiring and consequential chapters in American Jewish history, but also to inspire a new generation of American Jews to join the fight for justice. Specifically, we must raise our voices against recent efforts to roll back the voting rights of African-Americans, Hispanics, young people and others, and stand against hateful calls to scapegoat certain communities, including American Muslims. To paraphrase Rabbi Prinz, Jewish ethics and Jewish history simply do not afford members of our community the luxury of ever becoming silent onlookers in the face of hatred and injustice.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is the author of “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King and the American Jewish Experience” and the recently published “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims.”