57 years in the past, my rabbi dad was arrested marching for civil rights. What can we be taught from his instance? – The Ahead

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at Rabbi Israel S. Dresner's Synagogue, Temple Sha'arey Shalom, in Springfield, NJ, on Friday evening service on Jan. 18, 1963

Courtesy of Avi Dresner

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at Rabbi Israel S. Dresner’s Synagogue, Temple Sha’arey Shalom, in Springfield, NJ, on Friday evening service on Jan. 18, 1963.

Juniteenth is almost there. The holiday, which commemorates the emancipation of the enslaved African-Americans, is celebrated annually on the anniversary of June 19, 1865.

People and news went much slower back then, but true freedom lasted even longer. There would be another century of “legal” Jim Crow segregation and discrimination before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 granted the descendants of these slaves full rights.

All of this history is known and documented. Far less well known, however, are the events of June 18, 1964 in St. Augustine, Florida, when 16 courageous reform rabbis and one lay leader helped pass these landmark laws in what is still the largest rabbinical arrest in American history.

That it took place on Chai Day in June seems like a stupid coincidence that makes it plausible to view this day as a kind of Jewish tenth of June, but vice versa – a day when Jews were part of the wider struggle for the African American Freedom were arrested and imprisoned. “

To celebrate the 57th anniversary of that day, the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, the Southern Jewish Historical Society, and the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society are jointly hosting a free Zoom program with the on June 17 at 2 p.m. EDT Title “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 “The Rabbi & The Reverend”.

The struggle for full emancipation in St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, which celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1964, had been going on for nearly two years before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to make it the next civil rights testing ground after the success of the Birmingham campaign the previous year.

Police mug shot of Martin Luther King, Jr. after his arrest for protests in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. by the Forward

Photo by Gado / Getty Images

Police mug shot of Martin Luther King, Jr. after his arrest for protests in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.

In a letter to my father dated June 12, 1964, dictated by the St. Augustine City Jail, Dr. King called the city “the most lawless community we’ve ever worked” and referred to “the shootings, the beating”. and the burning down of our house here. “

By then, my father had been arrested and jailed on the first interfaith ministerial freedom ride in 1961 and the largest mass ministerial arrest in US history in 1962 in Albany, Georgia.

Dr. King probably had these previous arrests in mind when he wrote to my father, “I am writing to you, Sy, because you are so close to our movement and Wyatt [Walker] mentioned that you would be attending your rabbinical meeting next week. I am very interested in a reform movement task force coming to St. Augustin and witnessing with us for self-respect and human dignity. It would do a lot to underpin our efforts here and across the country. “

Four days later my father read a telegram from Dr. King at the 75th Annual Session of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In it, Dr. King urged the rabbis to “give prophetic testimony against the social evils of our time”. Sixteen rabbis – including Rabbi Allen Secher and Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, the other two rabbis who attended the Zoom event this week – followed Dr. King called and drove to St. Augustine the next day.

Straight from the airport they came to a rally held in the sweltering heat of the First Baptist Church in town, where my father had been right after Dr. King preached that according to Rabbi Secher, his rabbinical colleagues had to shout “Gnug!” to get him from the pulpit. (I can tell you from my own experience that calling out the Yiddish expression for “It’s enough!” Never worked for me and, according to Secher, didn’t work that night either.) After the speeches, the rabbis joined forces with local black activists and marched to the city’s Old Slave Market.

Rabbi Goldstein describes this march as “the most terrifying experience of my entire life. Half the whites of St. Augustine had come to watch from the sidewalk. Like the Romans in the ancient Colosseum, the spectators were there to smell the blood. And we were the event! “

Fortunately, the rabbis only endured menacing hateful mockery before spending the night at the homes of local black activists to rest their exhausted bodies and nerves for the main event the next day.

At noon on June 18, the rabbis joined a group of more than a hundred local African American protesters in the parking lot in front of the Monson Motor Lodge who refused to rent Black Rooms or serve them in their restaurant. As the night before, native whites were out again, but this time Dr. King sat on the hood of a car across the street and watched.

While the television cameras were rolling, the rabbis were reciting Psalm 23 in English when they were arrested for unlawful gathering and disturbing the peace.

The group of 17 were placed in a cell for six in the St. Johns County Jail. Unable to sleep that night due to the crowd and heat, the rabbis wrote what Andrew Young, Dr [Dr. King’s] ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’. “

The title of this year’s Zoom program is named after the title of the rabbi letter “Why We Went”, from which my father and Rabbis Goldstein and Secher will read excerpts during the event – in addition to their memories of the day and questions from the audience.

Jeremy Katz, Senior Director of Archives at the Bremen Museum, describes the letter as “a historically important primary source document written by the rabbis who led the discussion. The audience will get a rare glimpse into the story of those who made it. “

Jay Silverberg, President of the Southern Jewish Historical Society added, “Our shared interest in the preservation, research and discussion of Southern Jewish history seldom gives us access to the historians themselves, as we will with the St. Augustine program. ”

It is undisputed that the rabbis made history on that day. The Senate did it the very next day by passing the civil rights law that the House of Representatives had already passed – after a 60-day filibuster. Two weeks later, President Johnson signed it into force.

“We will never know if the Senate filibuster would have been defeated had it not been for St. Augustine reminding us of the injustices the bill was intended to address,” said Andrew Young. The injustices the rabbis came to protest against.

They ended their letter with the words from the daily prayer service: Baruch ata adonai matir asurim. You are blessed, O Lord, who sets the prisoners free. “

Museum of the Striker's Southern Jewish Experience

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Forward.

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

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