The annual conference of reform rabbis barely had begun in Atlantic City, N.J., when the presiding rabbi stepped forward with an urgent telegram.
It came from Martin Luther King Jr., down in St. Augustine. He needed help. He needed rabbis to take part in demonstrations against the segregated city.
He needed them immediately.
King’s plea moved Jerrold Goldstein: “That was a call, a clarion call for help, to do something in the fight for desegregation,” he said.
On that day, in June 1964, Goldstein was a 28-year-old assistant rabbi at a venerable temple in St. Paul, Minn. He’d been eager to go to the conference, his first. He’d barely unpacked.
But the next morning he was at the airport in Philadelphia, a ticket in his hand. With him were 15 other rabbis and a Jewish social-justice organizer.
Goldstein had cleared his change of plans with his boss, the senior rabbi. But he delayed telling his wife, Frances, home with their infant daughter, until he got to the airport in Jacksonville.
She would worry, he knew. But by then, it was too late to turn back.
King’s telegram told the rabbis to expect to be arrested. So Goldstein was ready for that, ready to take a stand as a faith leader for something he saw so clearly as the right thing to do.
But 50 years later, Goldstein says that in many ways he had been naive. He was a Los Angeles native, a white middle-class man who’d never felt threatened, who’d always respected authority and been respected back.
“Nothing in my life prepared me for the danger zone into which I was moving,” he said.
Rabbi Allen Secher, though, was prepared for anything. Or so he thought. A couple of years earlier, he had spent a week in an Albany, Ga., jail after a civil-rights protest there. Thirty-two men in a cell meant for four. Excrement from the overflowing toilet soaking their feet. Jeering crowds outside their cell.
Anti-Semites tormented Secher as he grew up in western Pennsylvania, so he had no tolerance for seeing other people persecuted. That made the decision to join King in St. Augustine an easy one.
“I knew what I was getting into,” Secher said.
On June 17, 1964, once on the ground in Jacksonville, the rabbis took cars to St. Augustine and went directly to a black church, where activists gathered to sing, pray and organize before marching to the city’s old slave market.
King greeted them at the back door.
“Then I got the best introduction of my life,” Goldstein said. “It was welcoming. It was strong. He said, ‘Here come Moses’ people,’ and they all cheered, like I’d just walked across the desert. They were so happy to us; I know they felt so isolated, so endangered.”
King told them what would happen next: They would march to the old slave market. People would taunt them, threaten them. Don’t answer them; just keep your eyes straight ahead.
And stand tall, he told them: We are demonstrating our dignity, no matter what they say or do.
Just outside the church, the segregationist crowd was lying in wait. Some had broken bottles in their hands. Others had bricks. Red-faced and spitting, they screamed obscenities and racial slurs; the Jews who joined the march on this night provided new, poisonous opportunities for their insults.
Secher, who was 29, a rabbi based in Mexico City, said he never had been more scared. There had been reports of a sniper in a tree the night before, he said, and he could not block that from his mind.
He found himself near the front of the procession, holding hands with a young black woman. Her courage astounded him; she must have faced this many times before, but she never faltered.
Goldstein was terrified, too. More than that, he was sickened by what he saw.
“I don’t want to compare it to the Holocaust. That’s too cheap a deal. But I saw the existence of a real capacity for hate, for vicious hate, in human beings.”
He remembers a man standing there, spewing hate, with a child sitting on his shoulders. It was as though this spectacle was their entertainment for the evening. It revealed to him a festering ugliness just under the surface of modern society. He thought of a Hebrew phrase from the first page of Genesis: tohu v’ vohu — the world unformed and void. Speaking on the phone from his home near Los Angeles, 50 years after that day, he tried to explain: “When the world was created, there was total chaos, as it said in the Bible. Disorder. And there I was, back on page one of Creation, tohu v’ vohu all around me, trying to gobble up the civilization that had emerged out of the tohu v’ vohu.”
He paused, then gave a slight chuckle.
“That’s a sermon, isn’t it?” he said. “I never said that before; it just came to me.”
Though the vitriol aimed at them was immense, there was no violence that night; law officers were scattered along the route, which kept the mob in check.
At the slave market, they sang songs: “We Shall Overcome” and some Christian songs Goldstein didn’t really know. The march back to the church was quieter, and the rabbis split up to spend the night in the homes of some of the black activists.
The next day, the rabbis went out to get arrested, accompanying black activists to two restaurants and the swimming pool at the Monson Motor Lodge.
And so some became witnesses to one of the iconic images of St. Augustine’s civil rights struggles: Monson hotel manager James Brock pouring muriatic acid into the pool where black and white demonstrators swam.
Secher saw the whole thing, and was impressed that the demonstrators stood their ground as it happened. “It was the most courageous thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “These kids just didn’t move.”
Neither he nor Goldstein made it out of the parking lot, though, before they were arrested.
Police, armed with cattle prods, segregated the black and white demonstrators, some of whom resisted. “I wasn’t so brave as to resist the arrest,” Goldstein said.
A New York Times correspondent on the scene tallied up the score: “The 16 rabbis, the swimmers, the two leaders of the march and nine other demonstrators were taken to jail to join the more than 200 persons arrested earlier in sit-ins.”
Secher said that after he was arrested, a law officer made him and other protesters pose for a photo. “I guess for his scrapbook,” he said. Another officer, he said, poked an electric cattle prod at the bottom of a young white woman who’d been arrested, shoving it through her skirt. “She screamed. Screamed!” he said. “Like a teenage horror movie, a terror-filled scream.”
Goldstein said the leader of a local synagogue visited the rabbis in jail. He did not come to offer support. Instead, he lectured them about how they had no business coming to St. Augustine, how people were getting along just fine until a few outside demonstrators stirred up trouble.
The visiting rabbis were not dissuaded — not by those words or the conditions of the cell in which the 17 in their group were confined. It was sweltering, overcrowded. There were two bunks, and the men pulled the mattresses to the floor and took turns at fitful sleep.
By the light of a bare bulb in the corridor, they composed a letter they called “Why We Went.”
They went, they wrote, “because we could not stay away.” Because King asked them. Because here was a chance to act when too often they had been silent, “at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time …”
“We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”
The middle of the next day, they were released, and headed their separate ways. Goldstein didn’t go back to the rabbis’ conference. He went home, to his wife and family, where people hailed him for his role in the demonstrations, and helped raise his $900 in bail. It was nice to be lauded, not insulted, but he didn’t feel like a hero. He remembered, mostly, being scared — and impressed by those who stood for change back in St. Augustine. “If anybody was brave, they were brave,” he said.
Secher, who now lives in northwestern Montana, said, though, that the rabbis might have helped push the country a little bit toward change. That’s what people tell him, anyway. “Did we really do good? I put a question mark after that. I think it took a while. We’re told this played a role in the Civil Rights Act of ’64. If it did, boy, am I proud of that one.”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082