September 3, 2008
Before King, it was Prinz
A few months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a short Jewish man stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke to a large group of
"I speak to you as an American Jew. As Americans, we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice, which make a mockery of the great American idea.Thus began the least-remembered great speech in American civil rights history, one that had the dubious fortune of being immediately followed by another speech: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, which America just celebrated on its 45th anniversary.
But before King's speech electrified the world and became an anthem for a generation, a German-born rabbi by the name of Joachim Prinz spoke on those famous steps. In front of 300,000 people at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, Prinz, the rabbi of a New Jersey synagogue and a community leader, offered a taste of tikkun olam to a human sea of freedom marchers.
"When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime," Prinz continued, "I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
"America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the president down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community, but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself...."
To be honest, my first reaction when I discovered Prinz's speech was embarrassment. How could I have not known about such a seminal moment in Jewish American history -- at an event that King himself called "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation"?
How did this little gem slip under the mainstream Jewish radar?
Of course, that can hardly be said for King and his speech. Go on jewishjournal.com, for example, and you'll see a nostalgic love letter to "I Have a Dream" from someone who saw it live, and in the Forward newspaper, a fawning essay on the moral and spiritual influence of King's speech on the Jewish community.
But search in the major Jewish papers for Rabbi Prinz's speech -- the one that march organizer, Bayard Rustin, actually called the event's "greatest speech" -- and what do you find?
For a noisy community like ours, that's puzzling. And a shame, too. Especially at a time when the already complicated relationship between Jews and blacks is being frayed by a virulent and viral anti-Obama campaign, it'd be nice to recall a time when the two groups fought so closely on the same side of history.
And there were few times when they were closer than on that hot August day of 1963, when King and Prinz, who were personal friends, made quite a one-two punch.
Prinz's speech complemented King's. Whereas King railed against the lingering effects of modern-day slavery, Prinz spoke as a descendant of biblical slaves who represented man's first struggle for freedom. While King brought the clear perspective of the victim, Prinz offered the more complex dual perspective of victim and observer.
It was as if Prinz, who died in 1988 at the age of 86, was saying to the black community: "Because we are white, we don't suffer from the same racism that you do. But as Jews, our experience as victims of prejudice goes back to our earliest days. That experience has helped us feel the pain of others. So we feel your pain, and you can be sure that we will not remain silent. Our tradition teaches us to fight not just for ourselves, but for all of our neighbors."
As things would have it, it was one of my neighbors here in Pico-Robertson, Daniel Fink, who awakened me to Prinz's speech. Fink, a longtime community activist and member of the local neighborhood council, came by recently for a late night tea. Our conversation meandered: two Jews talking. After a while, he began recalling his childhood on the East Coast. Fink got all misty-eyed when he recalled a man he had met almost 50 years ago whose influence he still feels.
The man was a local rabbi who would teach Fink and his teenage buddies Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of our Fathers) every Sunday morning. The rabbi's wish, Fink said, was that one day they would use these life lessons to help enrich their lives and the lives of others.
The name of the rabbi, it turns out, was Joachim Prinz.
And while a great many Jews may not presently know him, sometimes all it takes to change that is one neighbor.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.