“At that time I was 6 foot 3 – I’ve become somewhat bent with age – and Martin Luther King was physically not so tall; no more than 5 foot 7 – so I towered over him. But spiritually, intellectually, as a preacher, in so many ways, he towered over me. He was a genius,” said Rabbi Israel Dresner, in a talk at Temple Emanuel in Kingston, New York last Sunday. Rabbi Dresner, who is sometimes called “the most-arrested rabbi in America,” was interviewed by Lawrence Bush, the charismatic editor of Jewish Currents magazine. Now 86, Dresner joined the Civil Rights struggle in the early 1960s.
“How did you handle the fear of going to the Deep South in 1961?” asked Bush.
“Different people have different kinds of fear,” the rabbi responded. “For example, I have no mechanical ability. I can’t hammer a nail or use a screwdriver. I’m more afraid of fixing a doorknob than of marching in Selma, Alabama.”
The event began with Dee Dixon singing songs of the Civil Rights movement, accompanied by the Interfaith Freedom Chorus. Within a moment, the whole audience was singing, too. (Incidentally, Rabbi Dresner explained: “In the 1960s, we didn’t call it the ’Civil Rights’ movement; we called it the Freedom movement.”)
The rabbi, who interspersed his remarks with Yiddish and Hebrew, told a story about Martin Luther King attending a Passover meal: “King had attended a Passover Seder with Rabbi Rothschild in Atlanta, and what most struck him was, after a small child asked the Four Questions, the first thing we say is: ’Because we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.’ ‘This was 3200 years ago,’ King said, ’and the Jews still remember their enslavement. And they don’t demean the slaves; they celebrate their courage and tenacity. Negroes (at that time, we used the word ’negroes’) can learn a lot from the Jews.’”
We ended by singing “We Shall Overcome,” in a stirring harmony of voices. The official story of the “Civil Rights” movement – the three-minute yearly montage on TV – has become as sentimental as Mother’s Day, but when I meet living veterans of the movement, I am awed by their spiritual presence.
“Martin Luther King was a mensch,” said Rabbi Dresner. “He was humble. He had a great sense of humor. He didn’t act like a king, despite his name.”