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 Memphis during that period, I learned

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

Mitzvah in Memphis six weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed

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 Berkeley; a distinctively NON-POLITICAL

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 America.

 

 

 

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 Memphis so soon after King’s death..

 

The Memphis sanitation workers strike prompted Dr. King to come to Memphis

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 Memphis in 1946 as Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel,

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. New York City had recently resolved its own

sanitation strike, but without the racial ugliness present in Memphis.

 

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 Memphis for a second visit. He did this, not

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

and said:

 

"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

of Memphis and Tennessee, and these are the laws of God. We fervently ask

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 Temple Israel but had

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 city's position. Memphis had switched from a

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

landscape of Memphis, as well as the entire U.S. It also profoundly impacted

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

Chicago police into a Gestapo-like force during the August Democratic

National Convention; and the Viet Nam war brought violence and divisiveness

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 Riverside Church in

New York on April 4, 1967, articulating his opposition to the war in Viet

Nam stands out as the most relevant for today.  He pointed out how that war

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 Vietnam. We must

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 Iraq.

Most disturbing is the perverse and pervasive thinking that the American

debacle in Iraq somehow serves the interests of Israel, and is therefore

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 Memphis, have been

intimidated from speaking out against the war, for fear of offending the

sensibilities of their many members who support it.

 

Wax’s successor at Temple Israel, Harry K. Danziger shepherded the

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 Iraq.  He is among those who believe that the

war in Iraq somehow serves Israel’s interest, and is therefore “good for the

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

the Memphis Jewish Federation as a “Friend of Israel.”  Danziger and others

are blind to the fact that the support that Israel enjoys from 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 America who patronize the right-wing elements of

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 Israel more secure.  Apparently this self-destructive notion

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 Israel has lead

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 America.  King

recognized how the war in Viet Nam undermined that spiritual integrity, and

called it out 40 years ago this week from the pulpit of Riverside Church in

New York City.  Many of King’s comments have painful relevancy for today:

 

 “ . . . 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 America that we may not be able to

achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning

of our adventure in Vietnam…”

 

 “ . . . 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.”