Walter salutes Rabbi Joachim Prinz on march anniversary

By Walter Ruby

When we were kids, Helga would occasionally cite Rabbi Joachim Prinz as one of her heroes; one of those who best expressed the Prophetic tradition of Judaism. I recalled that he was a German-born Reform rabbi who fled Berlin in the 1930's to the U.S. and eventually became President of the American Jewish Congress. I also knew dimly that he was involved in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, but had forgotten exactly what his role had been. His name came back to me forcefully this week because I needed to draft an op-ed for my boss at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Rabbi Marc Schneier about the Jewish role in the 1963 March on Washington. Here it is on Huffington Post.

So it turned out that not only was Prinz involved in the movement, but that he was the main Jewish speaker at the March on Washington--indeed, that he spoke directly after Mahalia Jackson's medley of spirituals and directly before MLK"s 'I Have a Dream Speech". Here is Prinz's speech.

Obviously, Mahalia Jackson was a hard act to follow (Prinz's first words were :"I wish I could sing!") and 'I Have a Dream' was a VERY hard oratory to precede, but what an amazing thing that this little known rabbi was sandwiched between the two of them at the end of a long day of oratory, which shows the pride of place the Jewish community had at the March as the closest ally of the black community. Almost no one remembers Prinz's remarks today, which is a great shame because his speech was incredibly powerful in its own right, especially in his evocation of the lessons of Hitlerism and the Holocaust. He said,

"When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community of Berlin, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."

Pointing out that Germans in the 1930’s “had become a nation of silent onlookers” in the face of Nazi hatred, brutality and mass murder, Prinz intoned, “America must not become a nation of onlookers, America must not remain silent, not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us…”

How true, 50 years ago and how true today! What a clarion call to all of us to get re-engaged in fighting the Republican campaign to roll back voting rights and to Stand our Ground against Stand Your Ground and the evil work of the gun lobby. Right On, Jo, for your work on that issue.

I am finding it incredibly inspiring to connect with Prinz giving the greatest speech of his life and reminding us of the heroic role that American Jews played in the Civil Rights movement, including the Freedom Rides and the tough and dangerous parts, during which Schwerner and Goodman were martyred along with Chaney in Mississippi.

I am also including here a moving piece in The Forward with interviews with key Jews who were at the March on Washington and descendants of the principles, including Rabbi Prinz's son Jonathan (Joachim Prinz in sunglasses is pictured alongside MLK).

Here is Joachim Prinz's Wikipedia bio.

I don't recall ever interviewing Joachim Prinz--he was, I think, largely retired by the time I got into Jewish journalism, but I somehow feel I know him through Helga. Right now, I feel personally connected to him and very much want his story up on Ruby Family History. He made Helga proud to be Jewish and human on a hot August day in 1963, and he is doing it for me at this moment exactly 50 years later. Joachim, L'Chayim!

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