Last month’s 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act drew well-deserved attention.
But the stroke of President Johnson’s pen hardly ended discrimination. In fact, just 2 months later — in June, 1964 — the largest mass arrest of rabbis ever took place, in St. Augustine, Florida.
The group — led by Rev. Martin Luther King — was striving to end segregation in the nation’s oldest city. Just a month earlier, he had spoken at Westport’s Temple Israel.
Now the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein, returned the favor. He traveled south, and was part of the group that landed in jail.
Next month, St. Augustine commemorates the 50th anniversary of that event. There is a panel discussion with 9 of the rabbis who are still alive; a reading of the letter the rabbis wrote and signed that night in the St. Johns County jail; a march to the church where the rabbis heard rousing calls to action by Rev. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Andrew Young; lunch cooked by the woman who cooked for Rev. King 50 years ago; a tour of the jail where the rabbis were incarcerated and fed baby food (overlooking the spot where black protesters were held, surrounded by barbed wire with no food at all), and a curated display in the city’s visitor center that reviews the 450-year-old history of blacks in North America.
Rabbi Rubenstein died in 1990. But his son Jonathan has been invited to attend.
Rabbi Merrill Shapiro told him, “The story of your father’s role in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history 50 years ago is legend here in St. Augustine …. (Some consider this) the most ‘undertold’ story in the history of the Jewish community of North America.”
That story was told in a recent edition of the Southern Jewish Historical Society newsletter.
Half a century ago, as St. Augustine prepared to celebrate its 400th anniversary — and Congress debated the Civil Rights Act — shopkeepers proudly displayed Ku Klux Klan robes.
King asked the Central Conference of American Rabbis for help. 16 rabbis — including Rubenstein — and Reform Judaism’s social action director, heeded the call.
The group joined members of St. Paul’s AME Church, attempting to integrate a motel swimming pool and lunch counter.
In jail — by the light of 1 bulb burning outside their cell — the rabbis wrote a letter.
We realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came became we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act….
We came to stand with our brothers, and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.
The newsletter notes that while plenty has changed in St. Augustine in 50 years, much has not. There is only 1 black firefighter, and no police officer, city commissioner or school board member. Barriers continue to keep African Americans from voting.
Rev. Martin Luther King is dead. So is Rabbi Rubenstein. But — as the newsletter notes — “the voices of those arrested can still be heard.”
Next month — 50 years after those voices were raised — St. Augustine celebrates them.