Rabbi James A. Wax & Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Merchants of Peace & Justice
By H. Scott Prosterman
In the 1950’s and 1960’s American Jews were noted for their
support of the Civil Rights Movement. Jews were assumed to be “liberal” or
“progressive,” until proven otherwise. The common determinant for these
labels was your answer to the question, “How do you feel about civil
rights?” As a child, growing up in
that question was a good index for discerning decent human beings from the
other kind. When I met new kids, I often brought it into a conversation to
determine whether to invest in a new friendship. That wasn’t my only bait
for evaluating new friends. My usual conversation-starter was, “What kind
of music do you like?” If they didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll, we wouldn’t talk
much. If they had a profane or racist response to the civil rights
question, the conversation was over.
My values as a young teenager were defined by becoming Bar
there. But whereas, American Jewish communities ENABLED the Civil Rights
Movement in the 1960’s as a logical extension of Jewish thought and
spiritual integrity, many American Jewish communities now enable the agenda
of the Republican Party.
On MLK’s yartzeit a few years ago, I asked my rabbi, “Do we say
Kaddish for righteous gentiles . . .?” Before I finished voicing my
question, he quickly answered, “ABSOLUTELY!’ Thus, the name of MLK was
called out at Chochmat Halev in
shul. In the 1960’s the CRM was considered a political movement. Is it
still considered “political” to support concepts like equal rights,
education and access to quality medical care? Or are these things the
birthright of all people according to Jewish thought and tradition? Though
the CRM was indeed a political movement, it was also a movement about the
spiritual integrity of
Photo of Rabbi James Wax.The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968
represents a turning point for the Civil Rights movement, the American Labor
movement, and the dynamics of municipal government. That the assassination
of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., occurred as a consequence of this strike,
forever burnishes the memory of that event in the minds of many Americans.
Regrettably, some figures of the Civil Rights Movement have been forgotten,
while their work merits heroic recognition. One of these men was Rabbi James
A. Wax, who led my Bar Mitzvah in
in February 1968. From the time the workers walked off their jobs on
February 12, until the strike's resolution several days after Dr. King's
death, Rabbi Wax was instrumental in mediating the strike and guiding its
resolution. Curiously, his contribution has been omitted from or diminished
in all historical accounts about of Dr. King's death.
Rabbi Wax had come to
and became Head Rabbi in 1954. As president of the Memphis Minister's
Association (MMA), Rabbi Wax served as a spiritual leader for the city
during the strike.
Though composed of 111 white and 35 black clergy, the MMA played a crucial
role in galvanizing the black community around the strike issues, which had
clear racial implications.
sanitation strike, but without
the racial ugliness present in
Mayor Henry Loeb was viewed by many as the heavy in the strike. Though there
was no city or state law prohibiting public employees from striking, Mayor
Loeb refused to negotiate with the workers until they returned to their
jobs. Rabbi Wax forced the city's hand, and negotiations began in the
basement of St. Mary's Episcopal Church on February 18. As president of the
MMA, Rabbi Wax served as mediator between the city and AFSCME, which was
seeking to represent the sanitation workers. Because the city refused to
recognize the union, all communications were directed through Rabbi Wax,
even when both parties were present.
Rabbi Wax forced four key issues onto the agenda:
1. recognition of the union with a contract,
2. a check-off dues system,
3. a grievance procedure and
4. higher wages.
The economic issues seem ludicrous by today's standards (even when
accounting for inflation). New workers sought a pay raise from $1.60 to
$2.00/hr. and veterans from $2.00 to $2.25. Issues of overtime, sick leave
and vacation pay were already on the agenda.
As the strike wore into April, Loeb stuck by his "no recognition, no work"
position and King returned to
only to prompt a resolution to the strike but also to show that a peaceful
march could take place in that volatile climate. A King-led march the
previous week had turned into a riot, when police and marchers began
jostling each other. Marchers said that a cordon of policemen "squeezed"
them into a narrowing corridor so that a backlash was inevitable.
Mayor Loeb deeply resented the involvement of local clergy in city affairs.
Despite this, he agreed to an off-the-record meeting with Rabbi Wax and Rev.
Frank McRae on the Saturday before King was killed. McRae later described
this as a "meeting of the minds that showed signs of progress." King was
killed the following Thursday.
The day after King's death, Rabbi Wax led a march from St. Mary's, down
Poplar Avenue, to City Hall and had a historical confrontation with Mayor
Loeb on national TV. Rev. Nicholas Vieron remembers the plan as being, "not
a demonstration, but a visit" to the Mayor's office. While Loeb was gracious
in receiving his visitors, Rabbi Wax had his own agenda apart from the
convivial "visit" the other clergymen had in mind.
Rev. Vieron saw the anger in the Rabbi's eyes and almost discouraged him
from making the speech that was called, "one of the most powerful statements
of justice and equality of our time," by Rev. Brooks Ramsey. With the nation
watching on all three networks, Rabbi Wax stood eye-to-eye with Mayor Loeb
"We come here today with a great deal of sadness and frankly, a great deal
of anger. What happened in this city is the result of oppression and
injustice, the inhumanity of man to man, and we have come to you for
leadership in ending the situation. There are laws far greater than the laws
you not to hide any longer behind legal technicalities and slogans, but to
speak out at last in favor of human dignity."
Ironically, Rabbi Wax had offered the invocation at Loeb's inauguration
three months earlier. Loeb was a
former member of
recently joined the Episcopal Church. Though Loeb was the visible bad guy in
this episode, he was under immense pressure from the city's council and
attorney's office to defend the
commission to a council type of government, only that January, and its
structure was fragile and uncertain. When news of King's assassination
reached Loeb, he was said to completely break down in grief and shame.
The 1968 Sanitation Worker's strike changed the political and social
the American Labor movement, particularly for striking municipal workers.
The tragedy of King's assassination woke this country up in many ways and
brought unprecedented legitimacy to the Civil Rights Movement.
It was my honor to have Rabbi Wax officiate my bar mitzvah just six weeks
after King was killed. I knew how important he was when I would come home
from a bar mitzvah lesson, and see the same guy on the 5 o'clock news who
was counseling me just hours before.
We tend to look back on 1968 with great romanticism. Yet we forget that it
was one of the most violent and tragic years in American History. Bobby
Kennedy was killed two months after King; Mayor Richard Dailey turned the
National Convention; and the
throughout the country. In addition, the ongoing threat of nuclear war made
it a very frightening time. Those of us who came of age in the late '60's
did so at a time of painful soul-searching for our nation but we benefited
from the new era of openness and spiritual exploration that followed.
King’s address titled, A Time To
Break Silence, given at
served to perpetuate the poverty of so many Americans, and rob this country
of resources for improving life at home.
A lesson I learned from Rabbi Wax is that one's politics is defined by one's
sense of humanity, or the lack thereof. People who grew up during the Cold
War were taught to perceive things in black and white, good vs. evil. During
the Cold War, there was no such thing as neutrality. You were either a
patriot or a communist. Relativity and definition of terms didn't matter.
The same dynamics led Reagan and the Bushes to make the "Liberal Republican"
extinct. While much has been accomplished in the last 40 years, it is sad
that many of the battles won then must be fought over again and there is
precious little gray area on any political spectrum.
As King noted in his speech on April 4, 1967: “Meanwhile we in the churches
and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to
disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise
our voices if our nation
persists in its perverse ways in
be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means
of protest possible.”
Conservatives have used the “Israel Card” as a front for conning Jewish
community leaders into supporting their entire agenda; from their attacks on
the Constitution and Separation
of Church and State, to the war in
Most disturbing is the perverse and pervasive thinking that the American
“good for the Jews.” The leaders of most American Jewish organizations have
either openly argued for supporting the war, or remained silent if they
oppose it. Rabbis of many congregations, including in
intimidated from speaking out against the war, for fear of offending the
sensibilities of their many members who support it.
Wax’s successor at
congregation to the far right fringes of the American political spectrum.
Now, as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR),
Danziger is one of the many American rabbis who can’t bring themselves to
speak out against the war in
Jews.” I once heard Danziger give a sermon calling out the Rev. Ed McAteer
for stating that “G-d doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews.” Less than three
years later, Danziger led the way for the same Rev. McAteer to be honored by
are blind to the fact that the
evangelical movements has a gravely disingenuous motive – they want to round
us up so they can get on with their apocalypse.
As King noted in his opening remarks of the 1967 speech, A Time To Break
Silence speech, "A time comes when silence is betrayal." The
congregational rabbis in
their congregations by AVOIDING statements criticizing the war, are
betraying their own spiritual integrity and their congregations. Very few of
them, from Danziger on down, have offered any thoughtful arguments as to how
the war makes
leads AIPAC and most major Jewish organizations to continue supporting a war
that was predicated on lies, and which has undermined the integrity and
effectiveness of our
government. The Republican support for
major Jewish organizations and leaders to buy into the entire Republican
agenda, including draconian social agenda that attacks anyone not born rich
or white. It also goes to great lengths to marginalize and defame anyone in
our community who dares to break the silence. The Republican politics of
intimidation and defamation has been embraced by AIPAC and Jewish community
leaders who insist on supporting the war.
When we contrast that with the leadership of Rabbi Wax, one recognizes a
great leadership void in the American Jewish community. The Civil Rights
Movement was a movement about the spiritual integrity of
recognized how the war in
called it out 40 years ago this
week from the pulpit of
“ . . . men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's
policy, especially in time of war.”
“ . . . this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant
number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying
of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the
mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
“ . . . I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence
of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the
greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government.”
“To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so
obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking
against the war.”
“The world now demands a maturity of
achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning
of our adventure in
“ . . . the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five
years ago he said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make
violent revolution inevitable.’"
“There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering
our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the
pursuit of war.”
“War is not the answer.”
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary
spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility
to poverty, racism, and militarism.”