What I Learned on the Barricades with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Albert Vorspan was present at every milestone of the early civil rights movement, serving as the point person for the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. In the early 1960s, he wrestled with Reform Jewish leaders in Southern states who felt threatened by the social justice priorities of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), under the leadership of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath.
In 1964, Vorspan landed in jail with Dr. King and other protesters. During a recent sit-down, I asked him to describe those tumultuous years and what lessons we can draw for today.
ReformJudaism.org: When did you first meet Dr. King?
Albert Vorspan: I first tried to meet him in December 1955, when he started the bus boycott in Montgomery, AL, but the Jewish leadership of an Alabama temple implored me not to have any contact with him. In a hotel room with guards posted outside the door, they accused me of stirring up anti-Semitism. They held up a newspaper clipping with a story about the president of Hadassah and me speaking out for civil rights and said, “You spotlighted us. The White Citizens Council is going to come after us.”
The rabbi said, “Al, face it, they’re terrified. Twenty years ago, a rabbi here had spoken out for the Scottsboro Boys, and he was literally chased out of town by his own people. I can’t open my mouth.”
They were terrified for good reason. The White Citizens Council was a manicured version of the Ku Klux Klan, and local Jews had to watch their backs.
How did you end up in jail with Dr. King?
Dr. King sent a telegram to the Central Conference of Rabbis (CCAR) in 1964 saying that he was about to hold a demonstration in St. Augustine, FL, and wanted as many like-minded rabbis as possible to join him. I joined 17 rabbis in the protest, and we were all thrown in the county jail along with Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy and other demonstrators. We insisted that everyone be held together in the same jail cell. The sheriff, who was also head of the KKK, said, “Oh you do? You sure of that?” We said, “Yes, that’s what we believe.” He said, “Okay” and they brought out cattle prods. We ended up in cells separated by race.
How did Dr. King regard Jews and their role in social justice causes?
He had a deep understanding of the Jewish people and our faith, as well as a strong commitment to Israel, which he saw as an embodiment of the values of the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. He had no stomach for anti-Semitism and went out of his way to stop it, taking on the Louis Farrakhans of the Black community who sowed divisiveness.
How was Dr. King regarded when he first took on the mantle of national civil rights leader?
Leaders of the NAACP and the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, who operated out of our Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., initially resented his getting so much attention when they were doing the hard work of drafting civil rights legislation and building coalitions to lobby for their passage.
I’ve always had great admiration for Dr. King as a powerful and courageous spirit. He spoke out against the Vietnam War at the very time he was badgering President Lyndon B. Johnson on civil rights – a dreadful mistake, my NAACP friends insisted. I defended him, arguing that civil rights were essential, but so was opposing the administration’s bloody and wrong-headed war.
When he decided to support the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, Dr. King knew the next chapter in the struggle for social justice was fighting poverty, and he was already planning a march on Washington. In this quixotic quest, he conceived of horses and wagons converging on the capital from all over the country. He got tremendous pushback from his own community, and a test run in Peoria, IL, proved a resounding failure. He’s a big hero today because his assassination in Memphis averted the impending fiasco.
How will social activism differ today from when you and Dr. King were on the barricades of social justice?
I believe the values of equal justice are in great peril today and will once again require an effective response from Reform Judaism and each of us in our own communities. Last time, a few people had the guts to go to places like Mississippi and put their bodies on the line – the heroism of the few. This time, it’s going to be about reaching out to our own neighbors, getting to know each other’s concerns, and acting for the common good. In doing so, we will reignite the coalitions of decency that rose up and prevailed during the civil rights era. And they will save the soul of America.