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57 years ago, my rabbi dad was arrested marching for civil rights. What can we learn from his example?

Juneteenth is almost here. The holiday, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, is observed annually on the anniversary of June 19, 1865.

People and news traveled much slower in those days, but true freedom took even longer. There would be another century of “legal” Jim Crow segregation and discrimination until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 granted full rights to the descendants of those slaves.

All of that history is well known and documented. Far less well known, however, are the events of June 18, 1964, in St. Augustine, Fla., when 16 courageous Reform rabbis and one lay leader contributed to the passage of those landmark pieces of legislation in what is still the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history.

That it occurred on the chai day of June seems a bashert coincidence that lends credence to observing this day as a sort of Jewish Juneteenth, but in reverse – a day on which Jews were arrested and jailed as part of the broader struggle for African American freedom.”

To celebrate the 57th anniversary of that day, on June 17 at 2 p.m. (EDT), the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, the Southern Jewish Historical Society and the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society will co-host a free Zoom program titled “Why We Went” with the three surviving rabbis of the original St. Augustine Sixteen. One of them is my father, Rabbi Israel S. Dresner, the subject of the upcoming documentary film, “The Rabbi & The Reverend.”

The struggle for full emancipation in St. Augustine, the oldest city in America, which was celebrating its quadricentennial in 1964, had been going on in earnest for nearly two years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to make it the next testing ground of the civil rights movement after the success of the Birmingham campaign the year before.

Police mugshot of Martin Luther King, Jr. following his arrest for protests in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.

Police mugshot of Martin Luther King, Jr. following his arrest for protests in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. Photo by Gado/Getty Images

In a letter to my dad dictated from the St. Augustine City Jail on June 12, 1964, Dr. King described the city as “the most lawless community in which we have ever worked,” and made reference to “the shootings, the beatings and the burning down of our house here.”

By then, my father had already been arrested and jailed in the first Interfaith Clergy Freedom Ride in 1961, and the largest mass arrest of clergy in U.S. history in Albany, Ga., in 1962.

Dr. King likely had those earlier arrests in mind when he wrote to my dad, “I am writing to you, Sy, because you have been so close to our movement and Wyatt [Walker] mentioned that you would be attending your rabbinical assembly next week. I am very much interested in having a task force from the Reform movement to come to St. Augustine and witness with us for self-respect and human dignity. It would do much to buttress our efforts here and across the nation.”

Four days later, my dad read a telegram from Dr. King at the 75th annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinical association. In it, Dr. King asked the rabbis to bear “prophetic witness against the social evils of our time.” Sixteen rabbis — among them Rabbi Allen Secher and Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, the other two rabbis participating in the Zoom event this week — answered Dr. King’s call, and left for St. Augustine the very next day.

Straight from the airport, they arrived at a mass meeting held in the sweltering heat of the city’s First Baptist Church, where my dad preached right after Dr. King for so long that, according to Rabbi Secher, his rabbinic colleagues had to shout “Gnug!” to get him out of the pulpit. (I can tell you from personal experience that shouting the Yiddish term for “Enough already!” has never worked for me and, according to Secher, it didn’t work that night either.) After the speeches, the rabbis joined hands with local Black activists and marched to the city’s Old Slave Market.

Rabbi Goldstein describes that march as “the most frightening experience of my whole life. Half the white people of St. Augustine had come to watch from the sidewalk. Like Romans at the ancient Coliseum, the spectators were there to smell the blood. And we were the event!”

Fortunately, the rabbis only endured menacing hateful taunts, before spending the night in the homes of local Black activists to rest their exhausted bodies and racked nerves for the main event the following day.

At noon, on June 18, the rabbis joined a group of more than one hundred local African American demonstrators in the parking lot in front of the Monson Motor Lodge, which refused to rent rooms to Blacks or serve them in its restaurant. As with the night before, local whites were again out in force but, this time, Dr. King stood on the hood of a car across the street watching.

While television news cameras rolled, the rabbis recited the Psalm 23 in English as they were arrested for unlawful assembly and disturbing the peace.

The group of 17 was placed in a cell meant for six in the St. Johns County Jail. Unable to sleep that night due to the crowding and the heat, the rabbis wrote what Andrew Young, Dr. King’s chief aide, has called “the Jewish equivalent of [Dr. King’s] ‘Letter From A Birmingham Jail’.”

The title of this year’s Zoom program takes its name from the title of the rabbis’ letter “Why We Went,” which my dad and Rabbis Goldstein and Secher will read excerpts from during the event – in addition to sharing their recollections of that day and taking audience questions.

Jeremy​ Katz, the Breman Museum’s Senior Director of Archives, calls the letter “a historically important primary source document written by the very rabbis leading the discussion. Viewers will get a rare glimpse into history by those who made it.”

Jay Silverberg, the president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, adds: “Our mutual interest in preserving, researching and discussing southern Jewish history seldom gives us access to the history-makers, themselves like we will have with the program on St. Augustine.”

That the rabbis made history that day is beyond dispute. The Senate made it so the very next day by passing the Civil Rights bill that the House had already passed – after a filibuster lasting 60 days. Two weeks later, President Johnson signed it into law.

“We will never know if the Senate filibuster would have been defeated if St. Augustine hadn’t provided a vivid reminder to the injustices the bill was designed to address,” Andrew Young said.” The injustices that the rabbis had come to protest.

They ended their letter with the words from the daily prayer service: Baruch ata adonai matir asurim. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who frees the captives.”

Why We Went: A Discussion on the June 18th 1964 Sit-In from The Breman Museum on Vimeo.


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