In January, our custom is to properly honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday with a national holiday. Some cultures and religions also make tributes on the anniversary of a person’s death. Dr. King’s death on April 4, 1968 was a historic turning point in American History. It also happened to be the one-year anniversary of what I consider to be his most important speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. This is the homily that defined and codified opposition to the Vietnam War, and pro-actively answered critics of the anti-war movement.
King’s assassination was America ’s most dramatic wake up call at the time. It was especially profound and disturbing for me because it occurred in my hometown. My rabbi, James A. Wax, had been actively involved in the mediation process of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike from beginning to end. I was 12 years old and training for my Bar Mitzvah under Rabbi Wax when the strike was declared on February 12, 1968. I realized how important he was, when I came home from a bar mitzvah lesson one day, and saw the same guy on the 5 o’clock news, who was counseling me just hours before.
Several weeks into the strike, I was in Downtown Memphis for a dental visit with my father. After I was done, I went down to Main Street to observe the marching sanitation workers, while Dad worked on one of my brothers. I happened to make eye contact with one of the workers, and he invited/challenged me to walk with him. So I walked with him for two or three blocks while he told me about working a low-paying job under brutal conditions. I sure wish I could find my “I AM A MAN” sign that I carried that day.
The Obama Presidency has given us hope – 16 months later, we are still hopeful. With Obama’s election, I was encouraged to see former “constituents” come back into the fold to help elect him, after many had abandoned a socially progressive agenda. Whereas, American Jewish communities ENABLED the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s as a logical extension of Jewish thought and spiritual integrity; many American Jewish communities were seduced by the false promises of Reaganomics, and abandoned any pretenses of fairness and social justice. It was deeply disturbing to see Jewish communities ENABLING the draconian and racist agenda of the Republican Party from 1980 until recently. Thankfully, most of these folks have come back around.
In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement was considered a political movement, but the motivation was spiritual. Is it considered “political” to support concepts like equal rights, quality public education and access to quality medical care? Or are these things the birthright of all people, according to Jewish thought and tradition? Though the Civil Rights Movement was indeed a political movement, it was also a movement about these issues and the spiritual integrity of America. That was King’s main point in the “Time to Break the Silence” speech.”
The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 was a turning point for the Civil Rights movement, the American Labor Movement, and the dynamics of municipal government. Because the assassination of Dr. King occurred as a consequence of this strike, it is forever burnished in the collective memory of America , but we tend to forget what caused it and who the heroes were besides King. One of these men was Rabbi Wax.
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. My initial effort to create a tribute for him at the National Civil Rights Museum met with resistance. Fortunately, they are considering a tribute to him in their re-design.
The spiritual leadership during the strike fell to Rabbi Wax because of his role as president of the Memphis Minister’s Association (MMA). Though composed of 111 white and 35 black clergymen, 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 of 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. Because the city refused to recognize the union, all communications were directed through Rabbi Wax, even when both parties were present. I imagined the dark humor of someone interpreting English to English like the scene from Woody Allen’s Bananas.
Rabbi Wax forced four key issues onto the agenda:
- Recognition of the union with a contract
- A check-off dues system
- A grievance procedure
- 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 refusal to negotiate, 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 historic 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 remembered seeing the anger in the Rabbi’s eyes, and almost discouraging him from making the speech. These brief remarks were characterized by Rev. Brooks Ramsey as, “One of the most powerful statements of justice and equality of our time.” 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. Only months before, Memphis had switched from a commission-based government, to its first city council. The structure and organization of the new government was fragile and rife with administrative confusion. When news of King’s assassination reached Loeb, he was said to completely break down in grief and shame.
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. I learned from Rabbi Wax that one’s politics is defined by one’s sense of humanity, or the lack thereof.
In his speech titled, “A Time to Break Silence,” MLK pointed out how the Viet Nam war served to perpetuate American poverty, and rob this country of resources for improving life at home. MLK stated, “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.” MLK defined the urgent need to speak out saying, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
Other remarks from MLK’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech present a poignant relevancy for today:
“ . . . 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.”
“ . . . 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.’”
“War is not the answer.”
Scott Prostermanis a music, film and dance historian in Berkeley. He worked as a disc jockey in Pittsburgh and Memphis, where he grew up and where it all began. He was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, thrived in the 70s, barely survived the 80s, and re-grouped in the 90s.