A March To Remember
t was Aug. 28, 1963, a sticky day. The crowd of
250,000 at the historic civil rights march on
Washington was hot, weary and restless. But the charis-
matic keynoter, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had
yet to speak.
There were scattered sighs when Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the
American Jewish Congress president, began to speak from the
Lincoln Memorial's granite steps. The wait for Dr. King —
and his message of freedom, equality, justice and nonviolent
civil protest — seemed interminable.
The 61-year-old rabbi was spiritual leader of Temple B'nai
Abraham in Newark, N.J., and a civil rights
activist. After 11 years as the leader of Berlin's
Jews, he was exiled from his native Germany
in 1937 for speaking out against Nazism. He
drew Hider's wrath for trying to keep the
tide of hate from obliterating European
Rabbi Prinz spoke for just two minutes at
the March on Washington for Jobs and
ROBERT A. Freedom; still, his words lingered.
"As Americans, we share the profound con-
cern of millions of people about the shame
and disgrace of inequality and injustice,
which makes a mockery of the great American idea," he said.
'As Jews, we bring to this,great demonstration, in which
thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience —
one of the spirit and one of our history"
Rabbi Prinz talked about how God created man as a uni-
versal neighbor. He defined neighbor as "our collective
responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and
Dr. King spoke next. Midway through prepared remarks,
he chucked them so he could share his
unflappable dream: for freedom to ring from
every nook and corner of this great nation.
"And when this happens," he said, "we
will be able to speed up that day when all
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 least! Thank God Almighty, we
are free at last!'"
The march paved the way for the Civil
Rights Act of 1964.
What We've Done
Dr. King — the son of a Southern Baptist minister and a
quintessential American hero — was just 39 when he was
gunned down in Memphis, where he had come to support
the sanitation workers. His 1968 murder came 13 years after
he rose to prominence in the Montgomery bus boycott, a
seminal event in civil rights history.
More the originator of ideas, Dr. King accepted the
American Jewish Committee's Liberties Medallion in 1965 by
quoting Rabbi Prinz. "The most urgent — the most disgrace-
ful, the most shameful and the most tragic — problem," Dr.
King said, "is silence," not "bigotry and hatred."
This week, 40 years after the Washington march, is a timely
opportunity to reflect on what we've done in metro Detroit to
bolster bridges of black-Jewish understanding.
More and more Jews and blacks live near or work with one
another — or are business partners. Some f ,-ws have moved
back to the central city; others never left despite the 1967
riots. An important Detroit job placement and training
agency JVS, has Jewish roots. The Isaac Agree Downtown
Synagogue and the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit
nourish the soul for an eclectic mix of Jews. Suburban syna-
gogues mingle with black urban churches.
Jews lead ecumenical events, social action projects and
diversity walks. They give to black causes and tutor in black
schools. They also are key players in Detroit's politics, com-
merce, redevelopment and cultural arts.
At the very least, Jews and blacks are in sync with Dr. King's
belief that our destiny is intertwined. Yet we live in the most
segregated metropolitan region; our public schools are a grim
So we need to do more.
For starters, we need deeper racial and moral ties. Ninety years
ago, blacks began to follow Jews north and west through the
region. Today, more of us live side by side and are friends, but
I wonder how many of us truly know each other. In general,
we don't socialize, learn together or commiserate with one
another. Nor is there a coordinated effort to address the inner-
city scourges of drugs, crime and poverty.
Jews in Detroit and Southfield, each home to more blacks
than whites, have what Dr. King saw as the
will "to transform the dangling discords of
our nation into a beautiful symphony of
brotherhood." The same applies to Jews in
Oak Park, where the number of blacks and
whites is about even. Mayors Brenda
Lawrence of Southfield, Kwame Kilpatrick
of Detroit, Gerald Naftaly of Oak Park and
many other local leaders want rainbow cities,
villages and townships that flourish.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Community Council
has made it easier for Jews to help less-fortunate blacks
through a literacy outreach effort. The council's clergy mission
to Senegal and Israel in 2002 inspired interfaith concerts and
a black-Jewish Habitat for Humanity day. And Summer in
the City, the Jewish-led volunteer corps of suburban teens and
adults battling blight and stereotypes, is working to better
Still, I can't help but feel we need to be more proactive indi-
vidually. Blacks and Jews were joined at the hip in the fight
for civil rights. What a waste if we don't aggressively build on
that shared history by reaching across racial, religious and geo-
graphic lines to embrace one another.
In 1967, Rabbi Prinz used his pedestal as head of the
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations to urge "all responsible Negro leadership" to
condemn "the tragic crime of Negro anti-Semitism." The urg-
ing came as the notion that lasting black-Jewish harmony
required a two-way commitment was spreading.
"We have so much to gain from each other," said Detroiter
Elaine Driker, the lay leader of the JCCouncil's Detroit Jewish
Initiative, a bridge builder between blacks and Jews. I admire
her and her husband, Eugene, for never giving up when
championing civil rights was no longer in vogue.
"We're enriched," she said, "not only by what we can learn
from collaborating with and living among people of other
backgrounds and cultures, but also by all those unexpected
similarities we find in the values and wishes we have for our
children, grandchildren and succeeding generations." ❑
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