On a Wednesday morning in late August 1963, Michael Goldman and his father got into the family car and drove from their house in Northwest Washington into downtown. Somehow they found a place to park. And they joined 250,000 others for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“The march was orderly, joyful. There was singing,” remembers Goldman, now 69 and the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown Law. “People were glad to see one another. There was harmony between groups.”
The march, held 50 years ago on Aug. 28, is remembered chiefly for civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the program that day also included an array of other speakers, including a prominent rabbi. A contemporary news report estimated that 10,000-15,000 Jews joined the march.
That disproportionate participation is not surprising. The organized Jewish community fully backed the cause of civil rights, with a degree of activism that might seem surprising today, and Jews were among the march’s organizers.
“Dr. King was active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and had many contacts with Jewish organizations,” says Rabbi Matthew Simon, rabbi emeritus of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, who marched that day. King had a particularly close relationship with Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Conservative rabbi, philosopher and civil rights activist. To Simon, 81, Heschel was a “teacher, mentor and friend.”
Much of the Washington Jewish community was involved in civil rights even before the march, says David McKenzie, interpretive programs manager for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. In 1958, an organization called Neighbors Inc. sprang up in Shepherd Park, a largely Jewish and black neighborhood near congregations Tifereth Israel and Ohev Sholom, “to stem white flight and to keep the neighborhood integrated,” he says.
Rabbi Emmett Frank of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria was particularly outspoken in favor of integration. At the time, Virginia was pursuing a policy of “massive resistance” to desegregation and had passed a set of laws to cut off state funds and close any school that wanted to integrate, McKenzie says.
In October 1958, Frank was scheduled to speak at Arlington Unitarian Church, when an anonymous caller made a bomb threat, McKenzie says. No bomb was found, but nearly 600 congregants and Sunday school children were evacuated. The church invited Frank back to speak the following Sunday.
In the weeks leading up to the march, Jewish organizations worked to drum up participation. In its Aug. 16 issue, The Jewish Ledger, the precursor to Washington Jewish Week, ran a front-page announcement under the headline, “Jewish Council Urges Participation in Aug. 28 Rights Demonstration.”
The Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington asked area Jews “to give serious consideration to participating as organizations and individuals,” the announcement read, and outlined the day’s activities:
“The assembly will begin at 10 a.m. on the Washington Monument grounds.” At noon, the “assembly will proceed in a solemn procession down Constitution Avenue and Independence Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial.” From 2-4 p.m. “a mass meeting will be held on the subject of civil rights.”
The next week, another front-page article declared, “Major Jewish organizations join ranks for Aug. 28 rights march … in support for [President] Kennedy legislation for civil rights now before Congress.”
The leaders were late
In 1963, Rabbi Simon had a pulpit in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Active in interfaith and civil rights work, he joined a group of rabbis who took the red-eye flight into Washington the morning of the march. The rabbis held a Shacharit (morning) service at the airport, he says.
“Then we came into D.C. and we visited with our Congress people. We got to the Mall early enough” to get a good seat in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “My seat was front and center.”
Rabbi Sheldon E. Elster was a U.S. Army chaplain at Ft. Lee, Va. He came to Washington in a church bus, leaving his pregnant wife and son behind.
“There was concern in the papers that it would not be safe to be there — we forget that there was opposition to marches and protest and concern if non-violence could be non-violent,” he writes in a memoir.
Simon and his colleagues were not the only ones meeting members of Congress before the march. March organizers — including King; Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress; and Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., a Washington attorney and civil rights activist, who was Jewish — were also on Capitol Hill. And in fact, the march started without them.
“The walk to the Lincoln Memorial began spontaneously, ahead of schedule and before its leaders, who had been conferring with Congressmen, arrived to head the procession,” the National Jewish Ledger wrote.
A famous photo shows King and the other organizers taking their place at the head of the march that was already underway.
Many Jews marched under the banners of Jewish organizations. Others, like Michael Goldman and his father, Aaron, joined the general crowd.
“My dad was very involved in civil rights in D.C. In the ’50s he worked closely with the Jewish Community Council,” Goldman says. “It was a passion of his.”
The National Jewish Ledger noted the predominance of the young among the marchers. “Even more noticeable was the presence of individual young Jewish men and women sprinkled through the Negro marchers. Many carried placards bearing sayings from the Old Testament in Hebrew and English lettering. Occasionally one of the Jewish young people would break into an Israeli folk song, to be joined by Negroes marching alongside.”
“Blacks and whites were all mixed together,” Goldman says.
The Goldmans found a spot “only 100-150 feet from the steps” of the Lincoln Memorial and “well to the right.”
The program featured a performance by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Contralto Marian Anderson led the national anthem. Speakers included John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and now a U.S. representative from Georgia; Walter Reuther, president of the United Autoworkers Union; and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.
“There were a bunch of speakers and your attention waxed and waned,” Goldman says.
King’s oration now overshadows everything else that day, but “we have forgotten that the powerful speech given just before Dr. King was given by a rabbi,” Simon says.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz was president of the American Jewish Congress. He had experienced the rise of Nazism in his native Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1937.
In his address, Prinz argued for “our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.” He said the history of Jewish persecution has led Jews to “a sense of complete identification and solidarity [with African Americans] born of our own painful historic experience.”
From his life in Germany and from the Holocaust which followed, Prinz told the quarter million people who filled the Mall all the way to the Washington Monument “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.”
“Rabbi Prinz was able to connect for the Jewish community the denial of rights to the Jews and the Holocaust, with where America was 50 years ago,” Simon says.
‘Free at last’
When King stepped to the microphone after Prinz was done, “everybody got quiet,” Goldman says. “I kind of looked at my dad and he looked at me and we knew it was not a normal experience.”
Each listener knew it was a historic moment, he believes. “I’ve been to many demonstrations and I’ve never had that experience again.”
In about 18 minutes, King said that 100 years after emancipation, “the Negro still is not free” and that “we have come to cash this check” whose funds of freedom and justice were promised in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
He warned that “it would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. … There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”
And he painted his soaring dream of equality and justice and brotherhood and that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring … we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’ ”
The day after the march, Rabbi Elster was back on base at a chaplains meeting. Despite the fact that personnel had been discouraged from going to Washington, Elster stood and “with trepidation” admitted to his colleagues that he had marched in Washington. Then he told them what had happened there.
“Silence. Stillness. No one said a word,” he writes.
When the crowds broke up Simon and his colleagues returned to Capitol Hill. “The impact of the speech — the whole occasion — was universal,” he says. “You knew that the tide changed in American life because of that speech.”
In many ways, both Simon and Goldman measure their lives by what they experienced on that hot Wednesday in August 1963.
Simon continued his civil rights work, focusing on voting rights. “I was part of two groups that went south for voter registration and marches,” he says.
The march on Washington was Simon’s “introduction” to the city. And when there was an opening for a rabbi at B’nai Israel, he took it.
For Goldman, the march “created a bond for me with the civil rights movement.” He eventually became a lawyer and worked in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division.
Aug. 28, 1963, “awakened a nation to something that could be achieved and set the pace for where we are today,” Simon says. “And whatever has not been achieved, we’ve moved far beyond where we were 50 years ago.”
Goldman is still moved when he remembers that day. “There’s a great nostalgia as well. Wow! What a time! Wasn’t it wonderful! Of course it got much messier” as the ’60s went on. “But I wanted to pitch in and help.”
“It was quite a moment,” he says. “This one you knew it when it was happening.”
The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is collecting memories of participants in the March on Washington. Click here to contribute.