NEW YORK (JTA) – On Aug. 28, our nation will pause to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his historic “I Have A Dream” speech. Although he delivered the speech 45 years ago, his message of equality and justice still holds true today.
As we remember the impact King’s speech had on the success of the civil rights movement, it is fitting that this year’s anniversary falls on the same day that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama becomes the first African American to be nominated for president by a major political party.
This confluence of events also provides the Jewish community with an opportunity to take pride and celebrate the unique and extraordinary role it played in the preparation for and participation in the historic event in 1963.
Our community has a long history of standing with our neighbors in their fights for equality. Our efforts were evident throughout the civil rights movement, particularly the March on Washington – the dramatic setting for King’s speech.
In the weeks leading up to the march, the American Jewish Committee called upon Jews everywhere to show solidarity with the black community and participate in the gathering.
“The Jews have always been part of the eternal quest for human dignity and social justice for all mankind,” the AJC declared. “Our devotion to this cause is rooted deeply in our religious and spiritual traditions and our social experience. A most appropriate means of expressing our ideals today, as American Jews, consists in joining together with all men of good will in this peaceful and lawful assembly for the realization of a more humane and democratic society.”
The Jewish community responded overwhelmingly to the AJC call.
On the platform from which King delivered his speech were the leaders of the country’s Jewish organizations, including Shad Polier of the American Jewish Congress; Rabbi Leon Foyer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; George Maislan of the organization now known as United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; and Rabbi Uri Miller of the Synagogue Council of America. Below them, thousands of other Jews mingled with other whites and blacks.
Conservative Jews marched under the banner of what was then called the United Synagogue of America. Reform Jews carried signs with the quote from Leviticus 25:1, in both Hebrew and English, that was inscribed in 1751 on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Other Jews carried signs that read, “We march together, Catholics, Jews and Protestants.”
The program began with representatives from several religious groups offering opening prayers. Miller prayed that those assembled would not voice empty words, “nor even sincere ideals projected into some messianic future, but actualities expressed in our society in concrete and tangible form now.”
He said he hoped the demonstration would “sensitize all Americans, and especially those in positions of power and authority to this concept of equality.” Miller asked for the nation to understand that “when we deprive our fellow man of bread and dignity, we negate the “Tselem Elokim” – the image of God in man – and delay the fulfillment of His kingdom.”
Among the more poignant moments outside of King’s address itself came from one of the Jewish keynote speakers.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the head of the American Jewish Congress, stood at the podium and declared, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing I learned … is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
Drawing parallels to the Jewish community’s own plight in Europe, Prinz’s remarks set a tone that underscored the day’s message that the only way we could inspire change would be to speak out against the inequalities that existed in America. His remarks emphasized that as long as any one group remained silent, nothing could or would be accomplished.
King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and the efforts of the Jewish community are a noble demonstration of what we can accomplish when we join together.
No segment of American society provided as much and as consistent support to King and to African Americans as did the Jewish community. As Jews, let us take pride in this historic alliance that brought about the nomination of an African American for president some 45 years later.
(Rabbi Marc Schneier is the founder and president of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding. He was tapped by the Obama for America Campaign and the Democratic National Convention Committee to lead delegates in prayer at the first Democratic National Convention interfaith gathering. Portions of this piece were adapted from his 1999 book “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community.”)