As dreamers

Looking ahead while looking back: Why we marched on Washington

In Short

ADL chief reflects on his organization’s involvement in the 1963 March on Washington and how it continues to partner with the Black community today

Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, the moment when hundreds of thousands of Americans came together on a hot day in 1963 to hear an array of speakers including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Jewish community, and ADL specifically, were a key part of the 1963 march – so I’m incredibly proud that we honored and extended that legacy when we stood on the Lincoln Memorial six decades later both as a co-sponsor and active participant in this celebratory and historic event.

Some in both the Black and Jewish communities, including those who hold both identities, may wonder why we would be there. They look at an intercommunal relationship that, at times, has frayed over the years. Such cynics only see tensions and differences.

In fairness, it would be Pollyannaish to ignore these differences. It also would be equally wrong to not confront them and explain how and why the American Black and Jewish communities have worked together to push the cause of civil rights and equitable treatment for all. The rationale in 1963 is still as powerful today.

Even before the 1963 march and the ascendance of the civil rights movement, ADL was called on to address the issue of racial segregation. In 1952, for instance, ADL’s National Commission filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff in Brown vs. Board of Education, arguably the most important Supreme Court case of the 20th century. To be sure, there was debate inside ADL about this decision. Different camps vigorously argued the merits of the case. But ADL’s leadership did not flinch in the face of history: the decision to support desegregation was a unanimous one.

As important as that decision was, equally important was the logic that impelled ADL to act. ADL’s leaders, led by then ADL chief Ben Epstein, inveighed that our moral obligation as a Jewish organization was to reject wholeheartedly the principle of segregation, an idea anathema to equality and one that had marginalized Jews in societies in Europe and the Middle East for millennia.

Second, Epstein argued that the end of segregation would be good for all communities, including the Jewish community. He correctly foresaw that it would contribute to the continued liberalization of American society and facilitate conditions for all people, irrespective of race or religion, to lead full lives. This idea that to fight anti-Jewish hate, we must also stand against all forms of hate, has been central to ADL’s mission since it was written at our founding in 1913.

As the March on Washington approached during the summer of 1963, ADL was faced with the question of whether the organization and its volunteers and staff would get involved and take part on the ground.

There was no question that ADL was on the side of the civil rights community, with members and leadership joining Jews from across the country who went to the South to fight for equality under the law. However, ADL also had a long-standing policy of “opposing public demonstrations and organized boycotts.” This was rooted in the painful experience of Jews in Europe who regularly had been on the receiving end of such actions, sometimes sponsored by the state or sometimes taken up by citizens, but almost always with predictably devastating results.

But America was different, and, as the march loomed, ADL knew this moment mattered. The awareness prompted Dore Schary, the legendary longtime head of MGM Studios and ADL’s national chairman during this era, to set up a task force to examine the question. The process led to a change in organizational policy about such activity, paving the way for ADL supporters around the country to participate in the event.

And so, when the day came, there was a significant ADL presence. Our volunteers went on their own. ADL staff also converged on D.C. to participate, marching with signs that proudly proclaimed that the Jewish community supported the aims of the march. Epstein sat on the platform that day, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, head of the American Jewish Congress and a refugee from Nazi Germany, was one of the 10 speakers.

One ADL official who was there described the mood of the crowd as he experienced it: “The spirit of the crowd was a camp-meeting, picnic, carnival, religious, militant, patient, patriotic, good natured, constructive and family oriented atmosphere…These were strangers with a common cause. The ‘cause’ provided a common denominator which yielded an atmosphere of serious camaraderie to one of determined sincerity.”

As we mark the 60th anniversary, I believe that the fates of the Black and Jewish communities are intertwined. You cannot fight antisemitism without countering anti-black racism and hate against other groups. Communities will never be safe if all of us are not equally safe. Our country cannot live up to its promise if one group is made to live in fear.

This was true in 1963. It remains true in 2023. And that’s why we marched this weekend and will continue to do so.

Jonathan Greenblatt is the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.