As Martin Luther King Day approaches and as we prepare for the 50th anniversaries of the civil rights movement’s seminal moments—beginning, this year, with the semicentennial of the first Freedom Rides—Sue Fishkoff has a typically excellent retrospective that reminds us of the outsize role both Jews generally and Jewish clergy especially played. (A quick way to remember this is that the trio of martyrs Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman consisted of one black man and two Jewish men.) This was a time when the NAACP’s president was Kivie Kaplan, who was active in the Reform Movement; today, the only non-black person on the NAACP’s executive board is Rabbi David Saperstein, of Reform’s Religious Action Center.
Rabbi Israel Dresner, 81, recalls being arrested in June 1961 for participating in the first Freedom Ride. “I was a Reform rabbi,” he says, “but I always wore a yarmulke. I wanted people to know I was Jewish.” He remembers being with King in Georgia in 1962 while being threatened by the local White Citizens Council. Recounting a Seder he had attended, King reportedly told Dresner, “I was enormously impressed that 3,000 years later, these people remember their ancestors were slaves, and they’re not ashamed. We Negroes have to learn that, not to be ashamed of our slave heritage.”