By John Conway on January 18, 2015
On March 25, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the keynote address at the annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention at the renowned Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake in the Sullivan County Catskills. Ten days later he was dead.
King had come to the Concord to address the gathering of conservative rabbis to honor his long-time friend, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who had accompanied King and others in the historic 1961 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and who was being feted that might by his colleagues as a belated 60th birthday celebration. As he took the podium following his introduction, King was greeted warmly by those in attendance, who sang the civil rights song, “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew.
Heschel himself introduced King, “Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America.”
King did not disappoint them, making some brief prepared remarks and then answering questions the rabbis had submitted in writing beforehand. Despite the lack of formality of his address, his presence alone was enough to indelibly etch the memory of that evening in the minds of those who attended.
“His speech to us that night is one of many that the eloquent civil rights giant delivered to audiences across the land,” Rabbi Gerald Zelizer wrote in the newspaper USA Today in 2007. “But for me it was a profound moment in which one man spoke of faith at its best. As I look back over the words of his ‘conversation’ — King made it a point to tell us that he wasn’t ‘going to make a speech’ — I’m struck by the timelessness of his words and the durability of his vision to this day.”
King’s remarks to the gathered rabbis that evening were particularly significant to the Jewish community given the anti-Semitic views some of the more militant black leaders – Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown among them – were expressing at the time.
“King addressed that issue while also emphasizing his hopes for racial justice in America,” Zelizer wrote. “(B)ut he then broadened the scope of the question to address the moral imperative of defeating poverty for 40 million Americans of all races and religions.
“’Even though the president (Lyndon Johnson) said today that we have never had it so good, we must honestly say that for many people in our country, they’ve never had it so bad… It is poverty amid plenty,’ he told us.
“And then King did what he did best. He used an approach rarely used by religious leaders today — one that seems foreign in the current world of religion. He invited us to join him at the upcoming Poor People’s March on Washington. King wanted a sea of people to flood Washington and squat in their tents until the president and Congress took action to provide jobs and income for the needy. It was a protest that would occur months later without King to lead the way.”
King was not there to lead the May march because he was shot and killed on a Memphis motel balcony on April 4. James Earl Ray, an escaped convict from a Missouri prison, was arrested two months later and charged with the murder, but questions persist to this day as to the exact circumstances of the assassination. Ray confessed to the crime, pleaded guilty to the murder charge, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later withdrew the plea, and tried unsuccessfully to convince officials to reopen their investigation. Ray died in prison in 1998.
King had traveled to Memphis before his Concord speech to support striking African American sanitation workers who had staged a walkout in February to protest unequal wages and working conditions. He returned to the city on April 3, and addressed a gathering at the central headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the largest African American Pentecostal group in the world. It was at this gathering that King delivered his final speech, the now famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address that ended somewhat presciently with words that have since been memorialized.
“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Although absent King’s powerful presence, the March on Washington in May, 1968 became a benchmark in the Civil Rights movement, and many of the rabbis who had attended the convention at the Concord earlier that year were there. They had been challenged by King that night to take part, as a way to advance the cause, and such an invitation was difficult to ignore.
In his USA Today piece, Zelizer quoted Rabbi Everett Gendler, the chairman of the Concord event, who recalled, “When King struck the depths of a moral geyser, living waters gushed universally.”
Photo: Reverend Martin Luther King addresses an assembly of rabbis at the Concord on March 25, 1968. Rabbi Everett Gendler, chairman of the convention is at left. (courtesy the Rabbinical Assembly archives).