Extra Chapter 5
The Freedom Rider
After he became a rabbi, Brooklyn born-and-educated Israel Dresner, stung as a youth by the barbs of anti-Semitism, made a commitment to the black community to help in every way he could to end the bonds of segregation. A ubiquitous Jewish face in the civil rights movement, the voluble Dresner became the most-often arrested rabbi in American history.
Sy Dresner: “All I knew about civil rights when I was a child was that I was pro-Abraham Lincoln and anti-Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. As a child growing up in Flatbush, I had talked to exactly one black person, the doorman of the apartment house at 1400 51st Street. I liked him. I had friends who lived there, and on July 4 we would go to the roof of the building and explode cherry bombs or firecrackers.
“His name was Bill. He was not very educated, but I remember him telling me something really awful. I was about 11, and I had just started getting interested in American history, and I was reading a series of books called “The Boy Allies at War,” about World War I. The boys went everywhere, to the first battle of the Somme, the battle of Hindenburg, to Tannenberg. Bill the doorman told me that the Belgians had been so incredibly cruel to the black people of the Congo that they had cut off the breasts of the women who didn’t work hard enough during the day.
“When I became a rabbi, my primary motivations were always Jewish, so when I read the bible, I discovered that of the 613 commandments in the first five books, thirty-six – the most frequently repeated commandment – has to do with the Hebrew word gair, or stranger. If you look in the book of Exodus, it says, `You shall not oppress nor wrong the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ It’s repeated a chapter later, and in the book of Leviticus it says, `The stranger that lives with you shall be unto you as the home born among you, and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’
“As I said, in various forms this commandment is repeated thirty-six times.
“The legend in the Talmud is that one rabbi says, `How does God allow the world to go on with all the hatred, the violence, and the explotation?’ The other rabbi says, `The world survives because at any time there are thirty-six righteous people in the world, and it survives for their sake.’ As a result, thirty-six is a very important number. In Hebrew the word for righteous person is tsadik. The twelfth letter of the alpha bet is lamed, whose value is thirty. The sixth letter is vuv. So lamed vuv equals thirty six.
“The torah has dozens of commandments to help disadvantaged people, the widow, the orphan, the poor. Anything you drop while harvesting your field, you are supposed to give to the poor. The seventh year the fields have to be allowed to lie fallow, and whatever grows belongs to the poor.
“The Jewish tradition also emphasizes shalom, peace. There is no hello or goodbye in Hebrew, just shalom, peace. So those are supposed to be two tenets of Judaism, helping the disenfranchised and working toward peace.
“The Jewish tradition is surfeited with these teachings, and when you combine that with the Jewish experience, that of being hated, discriminated against, because you were a minority, different, a stranger, winding up and concluding with the Holocaust, you just have to understand that being Jewish is very important. But with my parents being immigrants, American ideals also were important to me. When you grow up the child of immigrants, you are super patriotic.
“Blacks have been battling for equality for a long time. In 1954, when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided, I was very proud of the Warren court that it was unanimous. I knew the name Thurgood Marshall, because he had been the chief counsel for the NAACP legal defense and education fund. These things were important to me, and they were important to liberals in America. It was normal for me to be involved, so I contributed to the NAACP, and I became a life member.
“I became involved in the civil rights movement from my pulpit. When Gov. Faubus tried to stop those eight black students from entering that high school in Little Rock in 1957, I spoke about it. That year I was assistant rabbi in a congregation in Danbury, Connecticut. The next year I became head rabbi at a reform synagogue in Springfield, New Jersey. Beginning in the summer of 1961 I would head south during my vacation to get arrested as part of the non-violent civil rights movement.
“The first Freedom Ride was in May of 1961. The bus arrived in Anniston, Alabama, and the sheriff’s department and the KKK beat the shit out of them. A month later came the first clergy Freedom Ride. The Freedom Rides were sponsored by an organization called CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality. It originated in Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago is, in the late Forties. It was headed by a great man named James Farmer, a pacifist, and they would go around trying to integrate restaurants in that neighborhood. You have to remember the whole country was segregated. The South was legally segregated, but the north had de facto segregation.
“When the first clergy Freedom Ride was created, a rabbi, Marty Freedman was involved in its creation, and Marty told me about it, and I immediately said, `Can I go?’ He said, `Of course.’
“We went to Washington DC and trained in non-violent tactics. From Washington D.C. we left on a regularly scheduled Greyhound. There were eighteen of us, fourteen white ministers and rabbis and four black ministers. There were no priests because the Roman Catholic Church didn’t get into it until the end of the first Vatican, which ended in 1965. So you didn’t see priests and nuns until Selma, Alabama, which was 1965. It was the fault of the bishops and the hierarchy, not the priests.
“Our plan was to integrate facilities along the way to Alabama, not just the bus itself, but restaurants and bathrooms and receiving rooms in terminals. At night we would sleep over in a Negro – in those days it was Negro – facility. So the first night we slept at Shaw University, a black university in Raleigh, North Carolina. The second night we slept on the pews of a church in Sumter, South Carolina.
“When we got to Raleigh, my job and that of Rev. McKinney, one of the black ministers, was to go to the Raleigh-Durham airport and integrate the john there. We had alerted the Raleigh News-Observer newspaper, and they sent a photographer to the airport to take pictures of us entering and leaving the white john and then the “colored” john. That was the kind of stupid thing we had to do along the way, but you have to understand since the country was stupid, you had to do stupid things to counteract the nonsense in the country. So we both drank from the white drinking fountain, for instance.
“I don’t like talking about this, but there were a lot of disputes among the eighteen of us. Most of us didn’t know each other. I only knew Marty Freedman. I didn’t even know the other two rabbis in the group. John Conyers was with us, and a very famous person in the theological world, Robert McAfee Brown, a marvelous guy who would have been an abolitionist a hundred years earlier. He was a professor of theology at the greatest Protestant seminary, Union Theological Seminary, up near Columbia University.
“We had elected a young, good-looking minister who spoke the King’s English, and he turned out to be kind of gutless. Every time there was a real confrontation, he backed down, and since he was the boss, we had to go along, because we elected him.
We had some big late-night arguments.
“We had a lot of scary moments. A guy in a restaurant came in with a shotgun. Another came in with a long box and said he had a rattlesnake in it. I’m a normal human being. I don’t want to get killed. What I’m proud of is that being scared never, ever stopped me from exercising my conscience.
“Before we hit Florida, our group split up. The eight whose stomachs knotted up and who gave in to the fear, went home. We didn’t have any fights after they left. We were left with eight white clergy – six Protestant ministers and two rabbis -- and two black clergy.
“When we got to Tallahassee, we sat in at the restaurant at the airport, and they wouldn’t even serve us water. After hours and hours they eventually gave us an ultimatum, `Leave or you’ll be arrested,’ and when we didn’t leave, we were under arrest.
“Whenever I went to jail, I would always fast, because that put the pressure on them, and I’m not big on chitlins, though I do eat grits. In jail I didn’t eat at all.
“We were in jail maybe twenty-eight hours, and we flew home.
“The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was never decided. We had a Jewish lawyer from CORE who did a terrible job. Justice Whizzer White, who had been an All American football player at Colorado, took our lawyer apart. The case was sent back to the Florida Supreme Court on a jurisdictional ground.
Two months later we had to fly back to Tallahassee for the trial, an open and shut case, and when we were convicted we had to back to jail. That was the longest I ever spent in jail, seventy-eight hours. They had us out on the streets of Tallahassee in prison uniforms with hoes in our hands, tending the grass on the streets of Tallahassee.
“After the fall of 1961 there were no more Freedom Rides.
“As a rabbi one thing you never can do is miss a bar mitzvah. If you do that, you’re dead. And so I was only able to travel on behalf of the civil rights movement during the summertime when I took my vacation. And so the next summer I went to Albany, in southwest Georgia, which they pronounce All-binny, where Ray Charles was born and raised, and which in 1962 was the center of the civil rights movement.
“At the request of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1962 I was a member of a delegation of white and black clergy invited to the White House by President Kennedy. He didn’t see us, but his civil rights guy, Harris Wolford, who later was a senator from Pennsylvania, did. Wolford was beaten by the son of a bitch Santorem, who already has been a senator twelve years.
“We were received in the Rose Garden in late July or early August. Wofford was very friendly, and then Dr. King asked us to come down to Albany, where we developed a lot of the techniques that were used during the breakthrough summer of ’63 in Birmingham. Every night we had mass meetings in the churches. We sang freedom songs every night. We marched in the streets.
“I met Dr. King for the very first time. He and Ralph Abernathy were in jail, and we went to visit them. I shook hands with him through the bars. He said, `Would you wait a second?’ He and Abernathy were together in one cell, and in the next cell were twelve teenagers from SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Committee. He whispered to them, `Start singing.’ They sang loudly, so no one could hear our conversation. He said he hoped we would stay in Albany a few days and said he thought he would be coming out of jail by the afternoon. When Dr. King came out of jail, he introduced me to Coretta.
“The next four or five days I followed Dr. King around like a puppy. Dr. King was only three months and a week older than I was, but he was already a great man, and I knew it. I spent almost all the daylight hours at his side.
“The Klan had burned four black Albany churches to the ground, and Dr. King decided to have a funeral service at each of them. We went out to this little rural church, called Mount Zion Baptist Church. I told him, `You know that Mount Zion was where the Jewish temple was in Jerusalem. That’s why the Zionist Movement is called that, because Mount Zion was the most prominent place in Israel.’
“He asked me to do the invocation at the service, and I sat down next to him on a little platform. I knew the FBI was there, because you could tell them because they were all wearing fedoras and had jackets and ties on, and it was a hundred degrees in the shade, and there was no shade. The FBI was not our friends, by the way. The film Mississippi Burning made them out to be heroes, but they weren’t. J. Edgar Hoover was a racist, among other things. He was not just terrible on civil liberties, but he was also terrible on civil rights, and he hated Dr. King with a passion. He bugged Dr. King’s phone. He took pictures of him in compromising positions and tried to get him to commit suicide.
“After Watergate and Vietnam, Congress in 1974 passed the Freedom of Information Act, and I sent away for my file, and it took six months, but they sent me over two hundred pages with a lot of stuff blacked out, and that was crazy, because I was always anti-Communist. I was never a member of a traveling group. I was anti-Stalinist, anti-Soviet. Most of the stuff was from newspapers, public stuff. It was crazy. But at any event, after my invocation at ceremony at the charred remains of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, they started singing, John the Baptist was a Baptist.
“I leaned over to Dr. King and whispered, `No, he wasn’t. John the Baptist was a Jew.’ And that’s true. John the Baptist was clearly Jewish.’ Dr. King, who had a wonderful sense of humor, laughed, and when he got up to speak he mentioned, `Rabbi Dresner whispered to me that you should remember that John the Baptist, like Jesus, was Jewish.’
“Dr. King eventually asked a group of us to go north and bring down as many clergy people as we could get arrested. We flew back north, got on the telephone, and we returned with seventy-five clergy people. All of us were arrested, the largest arrest of clergy in all of American history. We were standing in front of the Albany Municipal Building and allegedly blocking the pavement after we had been told by the chief of police to disperse. We wouldn’t, and they arrested us.
“The events of Birmingham of ’63 took place in March, April, and May, so I wasn’t there, but I was able to take part in the March of Washington on August 28. I stood about ten yards from Dr. King when he delivered his `I Have a Dream’ speech. He had the text in front of him, but he didn’t read it. He knew the thing by heart. You have to understand that all of this material had been used before. You can’t write a different sermon every time you speak. I had heard him give an `I Have a Dream’ speech twelve different times in twelve different places during the five days I was with him in Albany, Georgia. I had also heard the latter part of the speech in which he used another refrain, `Let Freedom Ring.’
“There were two hundred and fifty thousand people there in front of the Lincoln Memorial that day. He gave a truly great talk.
“President Kennedy didn’t come to the rally, but he invited the ten speakers, Dr. King, two Catholic bishops; Menachem Prinz, the president of the American Jewish Congress; John Lewis of SNCC, and Walter Reuther of the AFL-CIO. Jim Farmer wasn’t there because he was in jail in Louisiana.
“President Kennedy was killed that November, and some people say he didn’t do a lot for civil rights. You have to understand the times. Kennedy was not a courageous guy when it came to civil rights, but if you compare him to his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was infinitely better. Eisenhower had been born in Texas and was raised in Kansas, a state which was not southern but was legally segregated. He was raised in Wichita. Remember Brown v. Board of Education? Who was the board of education? Topeka, Kansas. In 1964 Harry Golden wrote a book, `Kennedy and the Negroes,’ in which he made Kennedy out to be a great friend.
“He was a politician, and he wanted to keep the South. He had picked Lyndon Johnson of Texas for his running mate because Johnson was a southerner from a segregated state, and after Kennedy was killed, Johnson took up the fight, and as it turned out, Lyndon Johnson became the greatest civil rights president of all times.
“Remember, Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He was a moderate. He was opposed to extending slavery, but he wasn’t in favor of abolishing it.
“I remember the day Kennedy was killed. I was at home on a Friday trying to write a sermon for shabbas evening. I didn’t have a TV set, and I was alone, and I didn’t find out until someone called me and I turned on the radio. I tore up what I was writing for my sermon.
“If you want to become a saint, get yourself assassinated. It was like that with Dr. King as well. He was much more controversial when he was alive, but that’s normal. Abe Lincoln would not have gone down as the greatest president had be not been assassinated. Jesus would not have been Jesus if he had not been murdered. Yitshak Rabin is a saint because he was murdered, and he was hated in the Jewish community in Israel.
“In 1964 I was arrested in St. Augustine, Florida. The Civil Rights Act had been introduced by President Kennedy, and in June of 1963 he had delivered an impassioned address to the nation, where he called upon Americans to end the hate. It was a very great speech, so Kennedy was not a total negative civil rights guy. But Kennedy couldn’t get it passed, and in the summer of 1964 Lyndon Johnson was working to pass it, but there was a southern filibuster, and in those days they needed sixty-seven votes in the Senate to break the filibuster. The minority leader was Everett Dirkson, a conservative from Illinois, and it was difficult to break.
“Dr. King was looking to find a way. That year was the 400th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuous city in the United States. Most Americans know about Plymouth Rock and 1607, and some know about Jamestown, which was founded thirteen years before Plymouth Rock, but they don’t know that St. Augustine was founded in 1564. And the city was planning a great celebration, and that’s why Dr. King decided to go into St. Augustine. The city was a hotbed for segregation. If you opened the American Automobile Association book, the number one tourist attraction in St. Augustine in 1964 was the slave block.
“In June of 1964 I received a letter from Dr. King from the St. Augustine jail. He wrote that St. Augustine was `the most lawless community in which we have ever worked.’ He talked of shootings, beatings, and the burning down of his house. A big rabbinical convention was scheduled for the next week, and he asked if I would go to it and call the alarm for rabbis to come down to St. Augustine `to witness the self-respect and human dignity.’ He wrote, `We are determined the Quadracentennial shall not take place with the city segregated and not a single penny of federal money can be used until the city is open to all alike.’
“I went to the rabbinical convention in Atlantic City, and I and fifteen other rabbis headed for St. Augustine. We all got arrested at the segregated Monson Motor Lodge, where more than two hundred demonstrators were arrested for trespassing. When white registered guests invited their black friends to swim in the motel’s pool, the owner poured muriatic acid into the water as a scare tactic. There was also a big row when we swam in the Atlantic Ocean to integrate the public beach. It all made headlines nationally. The filibuster was broken, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated all public accommodations, was passed. Dr. King attributed the breaking of the filibuster to what had gone on in St. Augustine.
“The next year the center of the civil rights movement was in Selma, Alabama. On a Sunday a group made up mostly of SNCC kids tried to march from Selma to Montgomery, and when they got to the Pettis bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers on horses with billy clubs and tear gas. The troopers beat the shit out of them.
“Dr. King was not there. He was at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta preaching, but the attack at the Pettis Bridge hit the TV airwaves all over America, and Dr. King issued a call for people to come to Selma for a march to be held on Tuesday.
“A bunch of us northern clergymen got together, and on Monday we flew down to Atlanta. We landed around 11 at night. There was no public way to get to Selma except to rent a car, and the four of us who had flown together, Marty Freedman; a white Presbyterian minister from Paterson; and a black minister who had been arrested with me in Tallahassee, drove through the night to Selma.
“We were an interracial group, and two of us were Jewish. We were scared to death that what happened to civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney was going to happen to us. In the summer of ’64 the three had been arrested by police in Philadelphia, Mississippi, pulled out of their car, murdered, and buried. As we drove through Alabama, which was every bit as bad as Mississippi, we couldn’t help think about that.
“We broke the tension by kidding each other. `Si, you missed the turn.’ We had looked at the map at the airport, but we really didn’t know the route. We bantered. No one wanted to show he was scared, including me. It’s one reason I was a good rabbi. When families had big trouble, I always knew what to do.
“We arrived in Selma around six in the morning. Dr. King gathered all of us at Brown Memorial Chapel and announced we would start the march. He asked me to stand up front with him, because he knew me, and he wanted a Jewish presence. When we got across the bridge, there were the State Troopers lined up. Dr. King asked everyone to kneel.
“There were about two hundred of us, and he asked two people, Ralph Abernathy and me, to stand and deliver a prayer. That day I was sporting a beard. When I got arrested in the Freedom Ride in 1961, I had vowed I wouldn’t shave until I was exonerated, which wouldn’t come for several years. My congregants accused me of being a beatnik.
“We delivered a prayer, and Dr. King stood up and asked the crowd to turn around and go back to Brown Memorial Chapel. What no one but him knew was that there had been a federal injunction ordered against our marching. He needed the federal government, and he didn’t want to be held in contempt.
“The SNCC gang was furious that we didn’t go forward. They were hysterical, yelling, `Dr. King is selling out. He’s an appeaser.’ It would be another nine days before the injunction would be lifted. Judge Frank Johnson, one of the great white judges of the South would say that Gov. Wallace had no right to prohibit the march and that he couldn’t block it. And so the march proceeded legally.
“In Dr. King’s later years he was frequently denounced from people who were further left than he. There’s always somebody further left. Looking back, it’s impossible to describe the danger of the situation. On that Tuesday we were in Selma, a white Unitarian minister by the name of Reeb was murdered on the street after he went to dinner. By then the four of us were headed back home. We found out about the murder in the Atlanta airport.
“I returned to Alabama in time to be there at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery. We marched past the Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery in front of the state government buildings. It was a thrilling moment.
“Let me tell you about Dr. King. One night in Albany, Georgia, we were locked into the home of the head of the Albany Movement, an osteopath by the name of Anderson. Albany was a city of about 45,000, a third to a half black, and you could tell where the black neighborhood began because it was totally unpaved. Wasn’t a single paved street in the black neighborhood. The white part of town was totally paved.
“That night a group of White Citizen Council people were walking around the home, shouting, `Outside agitators go home.’ I was scared, and Dr. King was as cool as a cucumber.
“We tried contacting the FBI. The nearest major office was Atlanta, three hundred miles away. They were no help. We called the Jacksonville office, and they weren’t able to help either.
“That night Dr. King and I were talking, and he told me he had been to his first Passover seder that year in Atlanta. The rabbi had a big reform congregation, and Dr. King said the rabbi had invited him to the seder, a gutsy thing for a rabbi to do in Atlanta in 1962. Dr. King didn’t go through the back door where the help came in. He went in through the front door.
“Dr. King described the seder to me. He said, `A little kid stood up and asked some questions in Hebrew and in English.’ I imagine it was the rabbi’s grandchild who was reading the Four Questions, the feer kashas. Dr. King said they then began reading from this book, The Hagaddah, answering the questions.
“He said, `And I remembered the first words after the boy asked the questions, which were, `We were slaves unto Pharoe unto Egypt.’ And he said to me, `You Jews have not forgotten in over three thousand years you were slaves. You don’t try to cover it up. You don’t try to conceal it. You don’t try to make yourselves the descendents of royalty, of kings and queens. You’re not unproud of the fact your ancestors were slaves who battled for freedom.’ Dr. King said, `We Negroes are doing exactly the same thing. We are not going to cover up our slave ancestors. It wasn’t our fault. You don’t blame the victim.’”