Rabbi Israel Dresner remembers a particular conversation on a particular night in 1962. He was in Georgia, in a house with Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking about the histories of blacks and Jews.
“The Jewish people haven’t forgotten that they were slaves 32 centuries ago. How will Negroes forget we were slaves only a century ago?” Dr. King asked Dresner, who responded, “Not just 32 centuries ago. We were slave laborers in the Nazi concentration camps.”
King paused in thought.
“We need to learn not to be ashamed of our slave ancestors,” he said. “Jews are proud of their ancestors.”
Dresner, now 81, and retired after four decades split leading two Reform congregations, recalled the story to the Chronicle with fresh excitement. Fifty years later, he’s been given a brand new forum to talk about his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.
Dresner appears in “Freedom Riders,” a new documentary about the groundbreaking bus rides of civil rights activists into the South, airing on PBS, Monday, May 16 at 9 p.m.
The documentary, from award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, chronicles the 1961 Freedom Rides, when more than 400 black and white Americans boarded southbound buses to challenge Jim Crow laws. They visited segregated diners and sat together in segregated bus stations. Vicious crowds taunted and pummeled the protestors and vandals firebombed the first bus south.
That June, Dresner boarded the only all-clergy freedom ride — 14 ministers and four rabbis — headed from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee, Fla. By the end of the three-day ride, 10 of the riders were in jail for refusing to leave a diner.
Today, the freedom riders’ story is “the worst and best of America rolled into one,” said Nelson. “It was a hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement, a multiethnic, multireligious participation at the very beginning of the movement.”
A longtime activist, Dresner protested the handling of the British Mandate in front of the British embassy in New York years earlier — for which police arrested him — but he offered only limited support for the Civil Rights Movement.
“I sent a check,” he said, “but that was it.”
All that changed when a colleague told him about the freedom rides, and how the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was assembling multiracial groups to board buses. Dresner left his congregation in New Jersey to be trained in nonviolent tactics. Days later, he was riding a Greyhound bus bound for Florida.
“We were supposed to integrate facilities all the way down,” said Dresner. “We did things that today sound really silly.”
One of those things was integrating bathrooms.
During the stop in Raleigh, N.C., Dresner and a black minister headed to the airport and walked into the whites-only bathroom.
“There was a photographer who took our picture as we came out,” the rabbi recalled, “it appeared in the newspaper the next day.”
The stop in Sumter, S.C., wasn’t so smooth. When the bus pulled into the station on the second night of their trip, Dresner said, “you could sense the hatred in the air.”
A seething crowd had gathered when the clergy stepped off the bus and into a waiting car for the trip to a black Baptist church. “Within five minutes, the car was stopped and we were given a speeding ticket,” said Dresner. “But because of moving through the crowd, we were going no more than five miles an hour.”
Despite all the resistance at every stop, the riders pushed on, Dresner said, though the clergy increasingly felt “fear, and a lot of paranoia.”
“We were finally arrested in Tallahassee,” he said. “The diner wouldn’t serve us, so we left. We came back in the morning, and they immediately called the police. We thought we’d be arrested long before that.”
“It was Shabbas morning,” Dresner continued. “I called the president of my congregation, and said I wouldn’t be making it to services that night.”
Though the clergy were only held — unharmed — for 32 hours, freedom riders from other trips weren’t so lucky. Angry mobs brutalized some riders; many who crossed into Mississippi were sent to the Parchman Farm state penitentiary to do hard labor.
To Dresner, becoming a freedom rider simply wasn’t a question.
“With the experience of the Jews, being segregated, ghettoized, excluded, massacred; how could a Jew not participate?” he asked. “Our faith teaches one God, one human kind, all descended from Adam and Eve. We’re all from one family that started the whole shebang.”
As fellow freedom rider Hank Thomas, who also appears in the documentary, remembers, Dresner wasn’t nearly alone: “I am one freedom rider who will never, ever forget the assistance of Jews,” he said.
“Let’s put it this way: when Germany was defeated in World War II, headlines across the nation read ‘Allies defeat Germany.’ Well, we had allies, too. Half of the freedom riders were white, and of those whites, a very significant portion of them were Jews,” said Thomas. “Jews played a very significant part in our human rights struggle.”
In Nelson’s documentary, Dresner, Thomas and many other riders speak of their experiences with pride, countering the testimony of vehement segregationists such as former Alabama Gov. John Patterson.
Now, in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Nelson’s speakers look back with a wise modesty, knowing their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement helped push it into headlines, and into the thoughts of the entire country.
“The country may be crazy today,” said Dresner. “But it was even crazier then.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)