Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” is understandably the most famous speech given at the 1963 March on Washington. Minutes before King spoke, however, a lesser known figure came before the crowd. He happened to be an immigrant from Nazi Germany. He also happened to be a rabbi. His name was Joachim Prinz.
Rabbi Prinz’s journey to Washington began after numerous arrests and threats of imprisonments led him to leave his native Germany in 1937. When he arrived in America, he mastered English and proceeded to become one of the most eloquent Jewish champions for civil rights.
Judaism’s Most Eloquent Champion of Civil Rights
He combined his commitment to racial reconciliation with resounding support for the state of Israel. These two passions came together when Prinz invited Dr. King to address the American Jewish Congress convention in 1958. This was King’s first address before a Jewish audience, and Prinz was the first rabbi to form a relationship with him. Their friendship helped shape King’s pro-Zionist sentiment.
Prinz’s March on Washington speech directed preceded King’s. This German refugee began with the resounding proclamation, “I speak to you as an American Jew.” He further drew upon his personal history when he said to the crowed,
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those most tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
With these words, Prinz linked the Jewish experience with the African-American one. And he reminded his listeners that silence is deadly. As his colleague Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel later put it, “Not all are guilty. But all are responsible.”
President Obama Recalls Rabbi Prinz
Interest in Rabbi Prinz was renewed earlier this year when President Obama quoted him in a speech honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Speaking to Israelis and Americans, President Obama said, “Rabbi Joachim Prinz was born in Germany, expelled by the Nazis and found refuge in America, where he built support for the new State of Israel. And on that August day in 1963, he joined Dr. King at the March on Washington.”
In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.
To that we can all say Amen.