On August 28, 1963, a few minutes before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most important speeches in American history, a white man in a crisp suit took to the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Looking out over the National Mall, Rabbi Joachim Prinz told the quarter of a million people gathered there that he came to them "as an American Jew."
He then spoke about his past as a rabbi in the German capital Berlin under the regime of Adolf Hitler.
I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was 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 ... America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.
Drawing on their own experiences of oppression throughout the centuries and particularly during the Holocaust, many American Jews refused to remain silent during the civil rights movement. They didn't lead the charge or take the place of black activists during that time, but they did act as important interfaith allies -- helping to build schools for young black children and serving as founding members and even presidents of the NAACP. Jewish rabbis developed close friendships with black community leaders like Dr. King. Jewish people also made up a significant portion of the white participants in the Freedom Rides, a series of trips through the South to integrate interstate bus terminals.
These rabbis' congregants didn't always support them, particularly those based in the South. Some American Jews during the time feared anti-Semitic reprisals from the Ku Klux Klan. But the social justice-minded rabbis pressed on, convinced by scripture verses that stated that all of humanity is "created in the image of God."
While there is some debate in the community about whether Jews are as visible in today’s #BlackLivesMatter movements as they were in civil rights issues of the past, many Jewish racial justice organizations have continued to take part in public protests and work behind the scenes towards legal reform that would ensure equality for black people.
It's different this time around, since the American Jewish population has become more racially diverse over the past few decades due to interracial marriage, adoption, and conversion. According to Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism, 10 percent of Reform Jews, the largest Jewish denomination in America, are people of color.
“We will march 50 more years or however long it takes to bring justice to all people.”
- Rabbi Jonah Pesner
When protests erupted in Ferguson last year over the death of Michael Brown, local Rabbi Susan Talve donned a Jewish prayer shawl and linked arms with interfaith clergy members to take in a peaceful march. And last summer, more than 150 rabbis joined an NAACP pilgrimage from Selma to Washington, D.C. to promote voting rights, education reform and economic equality, carried a torah scroll with them for the entire journey. Jewish synagogues along the route reportedly opened their doors to offer marchers a place to rest.
Pesner said that in honor of the life and work of the Dr. King, Jr, this weekend's Shabbat is marked out as a "shabbat tzedek," or a shabbat for justice. The readings this weekend -- which center on the Exodus from Egypt -- happen to fit perfectly with the theme.
"We didn't start marching 50 years ago," Pesner told The Huffington Post. "We started marching 5000 years ago when we came out of Egypt. And we will march 50 more years or however long it takes to bring justice to all people."
HuffPost Religion has collected historical photos of just a few of the Jewish rabbis who took action during the civil rights movement. This remarkable partnership between Jewish people and the black community is still a reminder of the power of interfaith activism.
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Julius Rosenwald is a philanthropist and former part-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company
who lived before the civil rights era but used his personal wealth to advance the lives of young black Americans. Together with Booker T. Washington, he hatched an ambitious plan to build over 5,000 public schools for black students in the Jim Crow South. Many famous African Americans have graduated from these “Rosenwald” schools, including
late poet Maya Angelou and U.S. Representative John Lewis.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s early experience of both anti-Semitism and apathy in Nazi Germany set the tone for the rest of his life. He was an expert in the study of the biblical prophets, and used their examples as inspiration to speak out clearly against injustice and inequality. Heschel met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 during a Chicago conference
on race and religion. The two struck up a friendship, and on March 21, 1965, Heschel joined forces with Dr. King for the historic march from Selma. He said
later that he felt as if his “legs were praying."
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Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath
Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath is seen to the right of Dr. King, holding the torah during a silent prayer protest against the Vietnam War. Dr. King was a staunch opponent
of the Vietnam War, believing
that U.S. presence in Southeast Asia smacked of imperialism and diverted money and resources away from the black poor. In a letter to King about Vietnam, Eisendrath wrote
: “You have not only my unswerving admiration, my fondest wishes, and my prayers. You have my whole-hearted support and deeply felt pledge of cooperation and assistance in this painful but imperative task of seeking peace and justice for all the creatures of God.”
Rabbi Joachim Prinz
Universal History Archive via Getty Images
In this image, civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy in the oval office of the White House after the March on Washington D.C. From left to right, they are Willard Wirtz (Secretary of Labour), Floyd McKissick (CORE), Mathew Ahmann (National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice), Whitney Young (National Urban League), Martin Luther King, Jr. (SCLC), John Lewis (SNCC), Rabbi Joachim Prinz (American Jewish Congress), A. Philip Randolph, with Reverend Eugene Carson Blake partially visible behind him, President John F. Kennedy, Walter Reuther (labour leader), with Vice President Lyndon Johnson partially visible behind him. Rabbi Joachim Prinz
fled from Nazi Germany in 1937 and resettled in America. He was active in the Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, and eventually became the President of the American Jewish Congress. He participated in the March on Washington, coming to the podium just before Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
During his address, Prinz told the gathered crowd, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was 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 Israel Dresner
Three of 10 freedom riders on trial at Tallahassee, Fla., for unlawful assembly talk to each other during a court recess on Thursday, June 22, 1961 in Tallahassee, Fla. The riders were charged following an attempt to integrate the city airport restaurant on June 15-16. Talking are (from left) Rabbi Israel Dresner of Springfield, N.J., one of two Jewish leaders in the group; the Rev. A.L. Hardge of New Britain, Conn., one of three African Americans; and the Rev. Robert Storm of New York City, one of five white protestant ministers. Rabbi Israel Dresner
has been called
“the most arrested rabbi in America.” He was one of the Tallahassee Ten, a group of Freedom Riders who were arrested in 1961 for trying to eat at a segregated airport restaurant in Tallahassee, Florida. He returned
to Florida in 1964 to serve out a brief jail term, before proudly eating at the same restaurant that had refused the group years earlier.
Rabbi Martin Freedman
Known as the “Renaissance Rabbi,
” Rabbi Martin Freedman (far right) was also one of the Tallahassee Ten. Freedman and Rabbi Israel Dresner (next to him) are taken to the Tallahassee city building where they were charged with unlawful assembly after they and ten other 'Freedom Riders' were arrested attempting to eat at the Tallahassee airport.
Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild
William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
After serving Jewish congregations in the North, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild
took up a position at The Temple synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia, and was “immediately disturbed” by the racism and segregation he saw in the community around him. For years, The Temple’s leadership had avoided confrontation with their pro-segregationist neighbors about racism. Rothschild changed
that by using his pulpit to preach about racial justice and joining local interfaith organizations. The Temple was bombed on October 12, 1958, which only served to increase Rothschild’s resolution to fight for integration.
Rabbi Perry Nussbaum
As a rabbi in the Jackson Mississippi, Perry Nussbaum faced immense pressure
from his white neighbors and even from his congregants to stay quiet about racism in order to avoid
drawing the attention of the local Ku Klux Klan. Nussbaum became more outspoken after waves of freedom riders arrived in his town in the summer of 1961 to protest segregation, becoming a chaplain to protesters who had been jailed. He went on to organize fundraising drives to rebuild churches. In 1967
, his synagogue and his home were bombed. In this image, Nussbaum is talking to journalists on November 22, 1967, just one day after the bombing, in the living room of his house. Boarded-up windows can be seen behind him.