When civil rights matriarch Dorothy Height died last week, most major news sources featured an AP picture of Height looking on as Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his 1963 “I Have a Dream,” speech at the March on Washington. Pictured between King and Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997, is a white man, who in most papers and posts remained nameless.
But three Los Angeles women know quite well who the white man is – their father, the late Richard S. Cohen, who spent his life working for Jewish and social justice causes.
In 1963, Cohen was with the American Jewish Congress (AJC) in New York, where he worked for 22 years as public relations director and associate executive director. He was an organizer of the march, and the right hand man to AJC’s Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who at the march delivered the speech right before King’s.
Cohen participated in all the civil rights marches, according to his daughter, Joelle Keene, and his essay on the march from Selma to Montgomery is part of the Museum of Tolerance’s educational packet on the civil rights movement. He was also active in local civil rights efforts, working to help blacks buy homes in his white Long Island neighborhood.
Keene, newspaper advisor and music teacher at Shalhevet school in Los Angeles, along with sisters Nina Cohen and Leslie Cohen, wrote letters to the news outlets that published the picture, asking that their father and other whites and Jews who fought for civil rights be recognized.
“Sometimes in history books, especially for children, the civil rights movement is depicted in drawings instead of photos, and the drawings contain few if any whites,” they wrote. “But it is worth remembering that, as the photo demonstrates, this was a pan-American movement, one that drew on the best in the American spirit from all kinds of people. Their fingerprints, too, are—as Marion Anderson said of Dorothy Height – ‘quietly embedded in many of the transforming events of the last six decades.’ “
When Cohen left the AJC he founded a PR company that is recognized as one of the founders in the field of Jewish PR. He represented the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism), MAZON, and numerous other organizations.
He also worked in the presidential campaigns writing Israel-related speeches for Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, Henry Jackson, Gary Hart, Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale. In 1948 Cohen worked for the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Paris, taking reports from Holocaust survivors in DP camps.
He was also instrumental in laying the foundations for the strong relationship between Israel and America, and was an early crusader for Soviet Jewry. He was an organizer and director of two conferences in Brussels on freeing Soviet Jewry, and wrote the first book on that struggle, called “Let My People Go: Today’s Documentary Story of Soviet Jewry’s Struggle to be Free” (Eagle Books 1971).
“On his death bed, my father told me the things he was most proud of in his life were his civil rights work and the two Brussels conferences,” said Keene.
Download and read “Marching to Montgomery” by Richard S. Cohen here.