My Day with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Rabbi Bernie King Tells His Story Marching Into Montgomery

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

By Elliot Fein 

The month was March. The year was 1965. Bernie King, a rabbinic student at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), was sitting at his desk studying. He decided to take a break. He turned on the radio and listened to the news. The feature story was the civil rights march taking place between Selma and Montgomery. 

The background noise from Alabama caught his interest more than the reporter's voice. He could hear women and children screaming in the distance. He didn't need to use much of his imagination to picture the cause of those screams. Images of thrown tear-gas, people being clubbed, viciously barking dogs and fire hoses turned full blast onto demonstrators filled his head. 

He immediately thought about what other people should be doing. "A lot of white people," he said to himself, "need to go down to Montgomery now to show support for Martin Luther King Jr." 

A moment later, when he realized his advice for others needed to apply to him-self, the vision of a martyr's death entered his mind. The notion "I could get killed going down there" intrigued him at first as something heroic, even romantic. 

Then, he arose from his chair and banged his knee accidentally against the desk. The pain that shot through his leg sobered his thinking. If he couldn't tolerate a brief sharp pain, how was he supposed to deal with the physical sacrifice he contemplated about his life's final chapter? 

He didn't let fear get in the way of what he had to do. He went to the College-Institute and informed Alfred Gottschalk (dean of the Los Angeles campus at that time) that he would join the demonstration during its last day march into Montgomery. 

While sharing his plans, Bernie inquired if funds from HUC-JIR were available to support one of its graduate students on such a venture. Dr. Gottschalk responded, "If this is something that you are committed to do then you need to find your own funds to do it!" 

The next day he boarded a charter flight with a number of rabbis and other clergy from Los Angeles and flew to an airport near St. Jude's, Alabama outside of Montgomery. 

The plane landed at about five in the morning, giving them enough time to join the last six miles or so of the march. They walked in lines fifteen abreast with their heads held high. Men were on the outside of the lines while women and children walked in the middle. 

Their instructions were simple. "If any one attacks you throwing punches or bottles [something that did happen], do not, under any circumstance, retaliate. This is a peaceful march. We are here to take some of the hate out of Alabama!" 

The first Montgomery neighborhood they encountered was a poverty stricken black area. The residents that lined the streets were dressed in their 'Sunday-best' waving American flags. Some of the demonstrators were probably the first white people many of the younger residents had ever seen holding hands with blacks. 

He felt intense irony walking by the "Loveless" elementary school and reflecting on its name. His eyes moistened when an elderly black woman from the neighborhood began to dance spontaneously among the marchers singing, "I am free! I am free!" 

The next neighborhood was a poor white area. Either silence or hurling ugly epitaphs greeted them. He did not see violence take place in this part of the city but would later hear stories about it happening. 

The march ended at the state capitol building. He saw only Confederate, not American, flags flying. He noticed the segregated bathrooms and chose with pride the security of walking under the "Negroes Only" sign when he needed to use the facility. 

The speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights leaders were a blur. Public sound-systems then were not what they are today. He did remember King using the "Moses leading the children out of Egypt" metaphor in his speech and asking the famous rhetorical question: "How long [before freedom and justice arrive]?" And hearing the crowd in unison respond: "Not long!" 

The ride back to the airport after the demonstration ended was the scariest part of the day. Trucks, busses, and cabs driven exclusively by black drivers were the means of their transportation. A national guard that seemed more than willing to look the other way continued to be their means of protection. The thought of Viola Liuzzo violent death earlier in the afternoon intensified his fear. 

At the airport, all flights were delayed. While taking a drink at a water-fountain he glanced across the airport terminal and noticed a group of four black men dressed in suits. One of them was Martin Luther King Jr. . 

Bernie stood up, walked over to the great civil rights leader, introduced himself and shook his hand. Dr. King asked him where he was from. Bernie answered "Los Angeles." 

King then thanked him for traveling a great distance to participate and support the cause. Bernie responded, "It is you we should all be thanking. You mean a great deal to so many of us." 

Bernie's words to Dr. King were genuine not only for himself but for a generation of American Jews that disproportionately involved themselves in the civil rights struggle. 

"There was something special," Bernie King said, "between Blacks and Jews at that time. When my plane landed at St. Jude's, hundreds of Blacks greeted us and escorted us to the site where we would join the march. All of the escorts had their heads covered with yarmulkes." 

In reflecting on that particular experience, Rabbi King today concedes what everyone else has since said. It was naïve to think the type of relationship that once existed between American Blacks and Jews could continue. There were simply too many issues that would surface and divide the two communities. 

Bernie got a taste of that divide soon after his return to Southern California. It was Friday night. Bernie led Kabbalat Shabbat services at his student pulpit and naturally shared with his congregation what he had experienced in Alabama. 

At the conclusion of the service, Bernie spontaneously decided to have everyone rise, join their arms together, and sing "We Shall Over-Come" rather than the traditional Adon Olam prayer. 

The temple's president greeted him after that gesture with a wry smile, a handshake and a verbal warning. "That conclusion was very nice. If you ever do something like that again, I will personally punch you in the nose!" 

King would later challenge that threat. The temple president never had the nerve to follow through with the consequence. 

Bernie King is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine, California.

Elliot Fein is the Education Director at Temple Beth David in Westminster California and a staff writer for the monthly, Orange County Jewish Life magazine. 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.