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How an interfaith friendship bolstered the fight for civil rights

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

It had gotten dark outside, and the Kings were running late.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta, were on their way to dinner at the home of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood.

At the time, the Kings were “just a young clergy couple who had moved to Atlanta,” said Janice Rothschild Blumberg, whose husband’s support of the civil rights movement had led to the bombing of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple on Peachtree Street in 1958.

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

“The Kings were very late arriving, like an hour, and were embarrassed. We tried to put them at ease and change the subject,” Blumberg recalled in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But Dr. King — Martin — insisted on explaining what happened.”

Unfamiliar with the Rothschilds’ part of town, the Kings had trouble finding the home on the unlit streets.

Martin Luther King, Jr., with Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, at a banquet held at Dinkler Plaza Hotel on January 27, 1965, honoring King for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. LOUIE FAVORITE / AJC FILE
Martin Luther King, Jr., with Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, at a banquet held at Dinkler Plaza Hotel on January 27, 1965, honoring King for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. LOUIE FAVORITE / AJC FILE

»RELATED: How Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize challenged Atlanta's tolerance

“They finally had to go up to one of the houses and ask which one was ours,” Blumberg said. But King said he didn’t want the Rothschilds to face backlash for their friendship. So Coretta went to the door and pretended that they were servers who were looking for the rabbi’s house to work a party there.

“We certainly didn’t think we had any prejudices at all, but we certainly didn’t understand what they were going through,” Blumberg said, acknowledging that the evening was a wake-up call for her.

That dinner helped set the foundation for a strong — and visible — partnership between the clergymen, and a sister-like friendship between their wives, she said.

Janice Rothschild Blumberg is the widow of Temple Rabbi Jacob Rothschild. She is seen here in 2008, answering questions at an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Temple bombing. (Joey Ivansco / AJC file)
Janice Rothschild Blumberg is the widow of Temple Rabbi Jacob Rothschild. She is seen here in 2008, answering questions at an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Temple bombing. (Joey Ivansco / AJC file)

»RELATED:  The Temple Bombing

Cooperation between America’s black and Jewish communities had a major impact throughout the civil rights movement. In the years since, tensions have arisen on both the local and national level, yet the bond endures. In Atlanta, leaders from both communities say they continue to work together on social justice issues.

Key to that alliance was the relationship that developed more than 60 years ago between two of the city’s most well-respected religious leaders. While King and Rothschild’s friendship did not mark the start of black-Jewish collaboration in Atlanta, it encouraged a search for commonality, laying the groundwork for future partnerships.

“Their friendship and unity in the struggle for civil rights for black people is symbolic of the ways in which black and Jewish people can connect in efforts to prevent and end blights against humanity,” Bernice King said of the relationship between her parents and the Rothschilds. “This is an Atlanta story that needs to be revisited more often.”

Mayor William Hartsfield and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild sift through rubble hours after The Temple was bombed in 1958. Civil leaders called the dynamiting ‘stupid, vicious, senseless.’ (AJC file)
Mayor William Hartsfield and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild sift through rubble hours after The Temple was bombed in 1958. Civil leaders called the dynamiting ‘stupid, vicious, senseless.’ (AJC file)

»RELATED: Warnock: Weaponizing racism endangers us all

Raphael Warnock — current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, the church once led by Martin Luther King Jr. — now has a similarly affable relationship with Peter Berg, rabbi at The Temple, where Jacob Rothschild was spiritual leader for 27 years. Their congregations have hosted joint events focused on social issues like mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.

“It doesn’t feel strange to us at all. It feels quite natural,” said Warnock, now a candidate for U.S. Senate. Both communities “know what it’s like to endure oppression and stigma and stereotypes,” he added.

At a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration this year, Berg referred to Warnock as “my friend and teacher.”

Rabbi Peter S. Berg (left) and Reverend Raphael G. Warnock (right) talk during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service. (Christina Matacotta / crmatacotta@gmail.com)
Rabbi Peter S. Berg (left) and Reverend Raphael G. Warnock (right) talk during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service. (Christina Matacotta / crmatacotta@gmail.com)

» RELATED: Freedom Rider: Our allies were American Jews

A profound moment in the friendship between Rothschild and King came in 1964, after King won the Nobel Peace Prize. Rothschild was among those who insisted that the city organize an integrated dinner ceremony to honor King, but support was tepid among members of the white business community. Leaders from Coca-Cola stepped in and pressured the city’s elite to support the celebration, according to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.

Rothschild delivered the convocation at the dinner, touted as the largest interracial gathering the city had ever seen. The evening ended with the crowd singing “We Shall Overcome,” the civil rights movement’s anthem.

“I think that was a real turning point in the history of the city,” said Blumberg. “Most Atlanta people didn’t understand how important it would be.”

Christine King Farris, the eldest and only living sibling of Martin Luther King Jr., stands and receives a round of applause at The Temple during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service on Jan. 17, 2020. (Christina Matacotta / crmatacotta@gmail.com)
Christine King Farris, the eldest and only living sibling of Martin Luther King Jr., stands and receives a round of applause at The Temple during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service on Jan. 17, 2020. (Christina Matacotta / crmatacotta@gmail.com)

Though Rev. King would die in 1968 and Rabbi Rothschild five years later, the informal but formidable alliance they helped to foster would be reinvigorated in 1982. That year, a dozen of Atlanta’s Jewish and African American leaders came together to discuss a campaign for the extension of the Voting Rights Act’s special provisions.

The meeting — during which Cecil Alexander, a well-known Jewish architect who was active in civic affairs, facilitated the discussion; and Atlanta City Councilman John Lewis, four years away from his election to the House of Representatives, spoke about the history of voting rights for African American — ended with the formation of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition.

“It was electric in the room,” Sherry Frank, the former director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter, said of that lunch meeting 38 years ago. She said it helped solidify the “comfort level” that leaders in both communities felt with one another.

The Voting Rights Act special provisions were renewed that year.

Sherry Frank (left) and Congressman John Lewis appear in the documentary, “Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance.” Frank, the former director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter, has worked together with Lewis and Coretta Scott King on issues like voting rights and the creation of Martin Luther King Day. (Atlanta Jewish Film Festival)
Sherry Frank (left) and Congressman John Lewis appear in the documentary, “Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance.” Frank, the former director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter, has worked together with Lewis and Coretta Scott King on issues like voting rights and the creation of Martin Luther King Day. (Atlanta Jewish Film Festival)

Frank would go on to develop a close friendship with Lewis. They held a joint 8th birthday party for their sons, who were born on the same day. In 2013, Frank spoke at the funeral for Lewis’ wife, Lillian.

She remembers working with Coretta Scott King to lobby for the creation of Martin Luther King Day, and marching for civil rights in Forsyth County after Hosea Williams and other protesters were attacked there in 1987. When Louis Farrakhan made comments that many viewed as anti-Semitic, Coretta Scott King spoke at press conferences and defended the Jewish people.

Bernice King pointed out that the first private business in Atlanta to hire black salespeople was Prior Tire, a Jewish-owned establishment. And a local Jewish orthodontist, Marvin Goldstein, treated members of the King family and opened Atlanta’s first integrated hotel, welcoming King to hold meetings there.

Bernice King, seen here at the King Center earlier this year, pointed out that the first private business in Atlanta to hire black salespeople was Prior Tire, a Jewish-owned establishment. And a local Jewish orthodontist, Marvin Goldstein, treated members of the King family and opened Atlanta’s first integrated hotel, welcoming King to hold meetings there. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Bernice King, seen here at the King Center earlier this year, pointed out that the first private business in Atlanta to hire black salespeople was Prior Tire, a Jewish-owned establishment. And a local Jewish orthodontist, Marvin Goldstein, treated members of the King family and opened Atlanta’s first integrated hotel, welcoming King to hold meetings there. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

»RELATED:  Atlantans gather to show Jewish pride and solidarity

Members of both groups, however, acknowledged that the relationship has frayed at times, when their opinions diverge on national political issues. When affirmative action was first being discussed at a national level in the 1960s, for example, many African American leaders supported it, while some Jewish people viewed it as a quota system that could unfairly keep them from getting jobs or accepted into schools.

Still, stories that “highlight how black and Jewish people in Atlanta joined and continue to join to lift humanity” should be a part of the city’s “consistent narrative,” the Kings’ youngest daughter said.

Frank believes the same. “It is important to tell the history,” she said,”but it’s also important to let people know that good work is being done — more work is being done.”

The congregation sings during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service at The Temple during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service on Jan. 17, 2020. (Christina Matacotta / crmatacotta@gmail.com)
The congregation sings during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service at The Temple during the joint Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service on Jan. 17, 2020. (Christina Matacotta / crmatacotta@gmail.com)

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.