As we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., we also remember the many supporters who were energized by the legendary Civil Rights leader.
“It would be impossible to record the contribution that Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom, it has been so great,” Dr. King was once quoted.
Jews identified themselves closely with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as they felt a common bond with the cause due to a history laden with persecution. Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement was noted in their organizational participation in the Brown v. Board of Education case, black voter registration, the Freedom Riders, and protest marches. However, it was the Jewish clergy that voiced the strongest opposition to segregation and discriminatory laws against blacks.
Rabbis in the South during the Civil Rights Movement played a prominent role in nonviolent protests and marches. Among them were several dozen Reform rabbis, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched alongside the demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. Rabbi Heschel, who was called a “great man and a prophet” by Dr. King, walked arm in arm with him, “leis around their necks,” as documented by a world-famous picture that has become iconic for Black-Jewish relations in the Civil Rights Movement. “When I marched in Selma my feet were praying,” Heschel said of the march.
Many other rabbis participated in the Selma march, including a contingency from the San Francisco area. These included Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, activist Irving Katuna, Rabbi Saul Berman, Rabbi Gerald Raiskin, and Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum. The 8,000 marchers reportedly left Rabbi Teitelbaum in awe when he heard Dr. King say, “We are like the children of Israel, marching from bondage to freedom.”
A leading supporter of the Civil Rights Movement among rabbis in Mississippi was Perry Nussbaum. In 1954, Nussbaum became rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson. As he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Nussbaum found the segregation among his congregants unsettling, and subsequently began advocating racial integration. In the summer of 1961, he traveled weekly to the state penitentiary at Parchman to minister to the jailed Freedom Riders, Jewish and Gentile alike. Additionally, Nussbaum wrote many letters to the parents of jailed Freedom Riders, giving reports on their children. As a result of his actions, the Ku Klux Klan bombed Nussbaum’s home on September 15, 1967, and his synagogue on November 22, 1967.
In New Orleans, rabbinical leaders in the community were integrally involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1949, Rabbi Julian Feibelman of Temple Sinai hosted a lecture by Ralph Bunche, a black United Nations diplomat. This gathering, which was approved by the congregational board, was the first major integrated audience in New Orleans history.
Throughout the South from November 1957 through October 1958, several rabbis who supported the Civil Rights Movement received death threats. Numerous synagogues in cities such as Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami were bombed or threatened. Regardless, they continued advocating the movement.
Rabbinical support was also present at the famous March on Washington, D.C. on August 27, 1963. Just prior to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Had A Dream” speech, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a Holocaust survivor, spoke out against racial injustice. Rabbi Prinz stated that Jews could not remain silent about racial injustice, as so many countries had during the Holocaust.
“The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence,” Rabbi Prinz said.