The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom falls in a year rich with commemorations in a civil rights vein--including the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was no coincidence that the March occurred in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation at a time when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation were a year away from passage. (As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted at the beginning of his “I Have a Dream” speech: “But 100 years later, the Negro is not yet free.”) Of the speakers present at the March, only Rep. John Lewis remains alive--one of the great Americans of our time.
I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Rep. Lewis speak in 2008 at the plenum of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in Atlanta. (The venue of the speech was "The Temple"--the historic synagogue of the city--and a target of civil rights era violence. More on this below.)
Rep. Lewis recounted marches in which he participated: the grandeur, promise and Call to Action of August 28, 1963. The preparation for the March included a meeting with President Kennedy in June, 1963 in which Rep. Lewis participated as the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. ("In 1963 we could not register to vote simply because of the color of our skin" remarked Rep. Lewis at Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 2013, at the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration.) Indeed, the speech of Rep. Lewis was a challenge to the Kennedy administration to get serious about Voting Rights legislation with teeth. (At the urging of A. Philip Randolph, Rep. Lewis tempered his remarks. He redacted, for instance, his sentence that "segregation is evil and must be destroyed in all forms." [See Meteor Blades at Daily Kos, August 25, 2013, for the transcript of Rep. Lewis' March on Washington speech which includes the portions struck from his speech as delivered].) Rep. Lewis' unalloyed call for what rightfully belonged to African Americans by natural law and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was heightened by the authority, personality and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he spoke: “There will be neither rest or tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” (Another upper Midwest connection is the work of Rep. Lewis with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin, in a bipartisan effort to renew the Voting Rights Act.)
The legislative advance of civil rights through the Congress via the breaking of the southern filibuster in the United States Senate did not result in acquiescence in many areas below the Mason-Dixon. The idea of African Americans voting in large numbers in the South remained an incendiary issue. Seeking to emphasize federally guaranteed voting rights and access to public accommodations, the Selma to Montgomery March of March 7, 1965, started quietly with a church service. Marching two by two, the participants were stopped as they reached the end of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement set upon the marchers. Fifty-eight marchers were wounded and treated at a Selma hospital including John Lewis who suffered a head fracture. The day became known as "Bloody Sunday."
Elected to Congress in 1986, Rep. Lewis--as he noted in his talk at the Temple in 2008--said no other group stood by the African American community like the American Jewish community. In 1987--in his first term in Congress--Rep. Lewis again marched for freedom. This time the Washington, D.C. March of 200,000 people was aimed at securing the freedom of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who wanted the freedom to practice Judaism or emigrate to Israel or other countries--on the eve of the December Summit between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Rep. Lewis marched. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, more than one million Soviet Jews were able to emigrate to Israel, the United States and to freedom.
Recounting these marches for freedom spanning a generation, Rep. Lewis was speaking in February 2007 from a bema (pulpit) of a synagogue whose rabbinical support for civil rights made the congregation a target. The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation--"the Temple"--located on a hill in the heart of Peachtree Street in Atlanta was founded in 1867. Starting in 1947, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild criticized southern segregation in a Yom Kippur sermon and supported by newspaper commentary the "Minister's Manifesto" calling for "moderation, communication, amity between the races and obedience to the law”--a loaded term in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education and President Eisenhower’s use of troops to keep the peace in the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
Early in the morning of October 12, 1958, fifty sticks of dynamite exploded in an entranceway of the Temple causing extensive damage to parts of the synagogue and shaking "the city's confidence and rattling its composure." (New Georgia Encyclopedia, Arts & Culture) A caller identified with the bombing said it would be the last time no one was harmed in a bombing. Atlanta's Mayor, William Hartsfield, said famously speaking amidst the rubble of the damaged portion of the synagogue:
“Whether they like it or not, every political rabble-rouser is the godfather of these cross burners and dynamiters who sneak about in the dark and give a bad name to the South. It is high time the decent people of the South rise and take charge.”
Five years later, at the March on Washington, Rabbi Joachim Prinz was one of a handful of speakers. As President of the American Jewish Congress, he represented the American Jewish community at the March. As a refugee from Nazi Germany where he often confronted Nazi authorities and was arrested by the Gestapo, he had great empathy for the plight of minorities. Rabbi Prinz told the 200,000 people gathered for the March: [In the face of discrimination] “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
In conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation--a cornerstone if unrealized aspiration of American civil rights in 1963 setting the stage for the March on Washington--the JCRC and Minnesota Historical Society have entered into an educational partnership culminating in a play for classrooms. Supported by the Bremer Foundation, the goal of the play is: “Exploring the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation from the perspective of Minnesota’s African American community with sixth to eight graders throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.” Teaching students to recognize prejudice and disparity and to promote tolerance and justice with mutual regard for all peoples is a parallel goal of the play.
The JCRC is planning to premiere the play at the Minnesota History Center in January 2014 as part of the celebration of the JCRC's 75th anniversary year.