The meaning of Martin Luther King to American Jewish students in the 1960s

Ahead of tomorrow’s Martin Luther King Day, an overlooked 1962 speech is recalled.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 370 (photo credit: Reuters/ screen shot)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 370
(photo credit: Reuters/ screen shot)

For American Jews, the early 1960s was a fascinating era. The period that included the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg as spies and the anti-communist hate fomented by the hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy had passed. The economic growth of Jews and their integration into American society was on an unprecedented rise.

For many American Jews, their attention turned to the civil rights issue that was awash throughout the country. In the South, the integration of buses, meal counters, movies and public toilets happened only when there were sit-ins. Traveling the southern states and the eastern corridor of America, one found only a few colleges and universities outside the Ivy League schools actually integrated.
Jews were among the leaders in the struggle for civil rights. The NAACP had been founded by Jews; Jewish attorneys helped to win the major civil rights cases.
Two Jewish children of the 60s, Lois Frank from Atlanta, Georgia, and Peter Geffen from New York, recalled growing up in the 1960s with the civil rights movement as a backdrop to their education.
“I had grown up in Miami and St. Petersburg Florida in the 1950s, and I was friendly with a number of the African Americans who worked for my father. I was not tuned in to the civil rights issues in my high school years, but when I attended at Emory University I did sense a change,” Frank said during a recent visit to Israel.
“Emory was not integrated during my college years, 1959-1963, but Atlanta was a hothouse of ideas because of the presence of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I cannot recall too much open dialogue between the races, but African American sit-ins and marches outside of Atlanta were known,” she said.
In her third year, 1961-1962, Frank was a member of the student lecture coordinating committee, and she thought it would be a good idea to invite King to the campus. A room in a campus building was arranged for 20-30 people. Advertisements were posted. Frank, in her Volkswagen Beetle, drove over to King’s home in a lower-middle-class neighborhood to pick him and his wife Coretta up.
“When we arrived at the campus, a crowd had formed next to the building where his talk was scheduled.
Already about 250 students were bunched together on the grass and ultimately, to my recollection, 500 attended,” said Frank.
With so many students arriving unexpectedly, Frank was not sure what to do, but King knew exactly how to handle this situation.
“In his inimitable style, which I witnessed for the first time, he stood on the steps of the Alumni Memorial Building, a central student gathering spot, and spoke.
He quoted great writers, theologians, politicians and composers. His voice carried a moving resonant tone just like it did when the world heard him speak, a year later, during the march on Washington. All I can say now, a half-century later: it was a truly amazing experience for a college junior like me,” said Frank.
The details of the evening are clarified a bit by a report in the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, dated May 10, 1962. An archivist at MARBL Special Collections looked at that issue of the newspaper and offered the following observations: “Over 1,000 students and faculty were present. Because of a recent disturbance by the KKK (April 1962) at an Atlanta women’s college, student and faculty IDs were checked closely. The campus police enforced crowd control regulations when such a large number of attendees were present. The story was on an inside page, and there was no picture (even the photo files from May 1962 make no reference to a photo).”
One assumption that can be made to explain the lack of a photo is that Emory had to be very concerned about its donors, some of whom were vocal segregationists. In the MLK collection of speeches and sermons, this Emory presentation is not to be found.
Looking back on that night, Frank said that King helped her define herself as a “champion of the underdog.” Her immediate first step after she received her BA was to enroll at Atlanta University for her MA in social work.
“There were only a few white students,” she recalled, “in the sea of all those African Americans. I learned firsthand from my teachers and my fellow students what the real problems of these American citizens were and what racial hatred could precipitate.”
During the 15 years following her graduation, Frank and her husband Larry raised four sons (one of whom is a Conservative rabbi in Jerusalem) and helped to insure their growth process as Americans and Jews. Then she began her efforts as a champion of human rights for all peoples.
In 1986, she and her husband were among those Jews who helped John Lewis, an African American, to be elected to the US Congress from an Atlanta district. Lois traveled with her son Joshua to Washington DC to be present at Lewis’ congressional inauguration. They remain very close friends, and Lewis is the leading African American supporter of Israel in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Year after year, and especially as national chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Frank has never ceased working to insure human rights wherever a stand must be taken.
The second student of the 1960s is Peter Geffen of New York, founder of the nationally recognized Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan and CEO of KIVUNIM, based in Israel, which he founded in 1999.
“In the summer of 1964, I was working as a student volunteer at Kibbutz Lavi. Via a shortwave radio I learned about the brutal murders in Mississippi of an African American and two Jewish students from New York, summer interns assisting in the work of King,” said Geffen. “One of the Jewish students, Andrew Goodman, was my classmate at Queens College in New York, and I decided to volunteer in the South in his memory the following summer.”
Geffen recalled that he was learning about the Holocaust and the silence of the world. He felt that he could no longer be silent about a discrimination issue in the US.
“My father, Rabbi Samuel Geffen, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, tried to dissuade me from going South in the summer of 1965. He had experienced anti-Semitism during and after the Leo Frank case. His concern for me was real, but I was determined to go,” said Geffen. “I worked for King that summer, and in 1966. In March 1968, a few weeks before his assassination, I heard him speak at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention of Conservative Rabbis at the Concord Hotel, in honor of his beloved colleague Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel.
That night he used the phrase which described Israel as ‘an oasis of peace in the Middle East.’ Three weeks later I marched in his funeral procession.”
When Martin Luther King Day was established by the US Congress in 1986, the writer stood with prime minister Yitzhak Shamir on January 19, 1986, as he dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. street in Jerusalem near the Liberty Bell Park.
That was followed by a special session of the Knesset where Henry Kissinger and Abba Eban paid tribute to King.