Fifty Years Later: Rabbi Richard Hirsch Reflects on the Civil Rights Movement

On the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we take great pride in the fact that the major deliberations on all the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s were held in the conference room of our Religious Action Center. The RAC housed the offices of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which was the umbrella coordinating organization of all the civil rights, civil liberties, labor, women’s groups and national religious bodies—Protestant, Catholic and Jewish—advocating the passage of the legislation.  All the leadership of these groups, beginning with Martin Luther King, Jr. participated in these meetings and were frequent visitors to our Center.

In commemoration of this historic role, we are reproducing excerpts from the memoir, “From the Hill to the Mount,” by the RAC’s founding Director, Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch:

During my years in Washington our Center dealt with a host of public concerns: among them: church-state, public housing, welfare, migrant labor, economic policy, foreign policy, civil rights, Israel and Soviet Jewry. We testified before Senate and House committees, convened conferences, organized intensive training programs for Jewish and Christian clergy, and issued publications and background papers.By far the most dramatic developments related to the civil rights crises of the 1960s. The umbrella coordinating body of all the civil rights groups was the Leadership Conference on Civil; Rights. As I was active in the organization and participated in the process of preparing the legislative proposals for the United States Congress, I invited the Conference to house its offices in the Religious Action Center. I take pride in knowing that much of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was drafted in our Center and that our Conference Room was the setting for the major deliberations dealing with civil rights issues.

In actuality, a panoply of groups contributed to the civil rights changes of the 1960s. In addition to the civil rights groups, many labor groups, civil liberties, and national religious organizations made invaluable contributions to the struggle. I was especially proud of the commitment and effectiveness of Jewish communal agencies and religious movements organized in the framework of the National Community Relations Advisory Council.

Martin Luther King and the other civil rights leaders were frequent visitors to the Religious Action Center. I invited Martin Luther King to use my office and the Center’s facilities whenever he was in Washington.

When Martin Luther King first proposed his March on Washington, many Congressmen and liberal public figures objected. The social action leadership of the Reform movement decided that we had to make a positive judgment and urged our colleagues to participate with full energy and commitment. Our Center became the headquarters for the Jewish participation in the March. Contrary to all the ominous predictions, the March on Washington proved to be a watershed historic event.

Selma, Alabama, a small city in the deep South, whose population was equally divided between blacks and whites, became a focal point for the battle for voting rights. Martin Luther King had issued a call to clergy of all faiths to join him in Selma to demonstrate their support… They had already recruited thirteen Protestant clergymen and one Catholic priest and wanted to know if I would be willing to go representing the Jewish clergy. It was considered extremely dangerous. Several people had already been killed.

When we arrived at Selma, we were taken immediately to the black church where the demonstration was being held. Thousands of people were gathered outside and the church itself was packed to the rafters. We were led to the pulpit where Martin Luther King was addressing the crowd. When he finished, he came up to me and said, “Dick, you’re next.” Totally unprepared, I offered only three thoughts, but the talk lasted almost half an hour. How was that possible?

I decided that I would speak the words of the Midrash. My first thought: “Jewish tradition teaches us that when God created man, he created only one man. Why? Our rabbinic sages responded, ‘So that no man would ever be able to say, my father is better than your father.’” I was interrupted with a huge ovation, stomping, people singing “Hallelujah, Brother—you give it to them, rabbi.” The applause lasted close to ten minutes.

I then gave my second thought: “According to Jewish tradition, God created man using dust from the four corners of the earth. Why? So that no person would ever be able to say, ‘the place from which I come is better than the place from which you come.’” Again, an overwhelming burst of applause, and shouting “hallelujah, hallelujah.” Martin Luther King quieted the audience.

Then I delivered my third sentence: “When God created man, he used every color of dust. Why? So that no man would ever be able to say, ‘the color of my skin is better than the color of your skin.’” Again, thunderous applause which lasted for many minutes. I then gave a closing thought, wishing success for the just cause and sat down. Never in my life have I experienced such exaltation and gratification from an audience. I was pleased that the application of Jewish tradition to a burning current issue had such impact.

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