Keith W. Schlegel: Why we remember “The Return”


Published: Monday, June 16, 2014 at 4:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 16, 2014 at 4:51 p.m.

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his friend, Rabbi Israel Dresner, from jail in St. Augustine. He asked Dresner to send rabbis to come and support civil rights efforts there.

King said that the violence against civil rights demonstrators (led by the Ku Klux Klan) was the worst the national civil rights organizers had ever seen. Sixteen Reform Judaism rabbis and one program administrator arrived in mid-June, 1964. On June 18 they participated in demonstrations resulting in the largest mass-arrest of rabbis in U.S. history.

The rabbis were leading a pray-in as a motel owner poured acid into the pool integrated by black and white demonstrators. That ugly image went around the world. The next day, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been blocked in the Senate, passed by a wide margin. It was signed into law on July 2.

Now the Justice, Justice 1964 Volunteer Committee of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society is working on “The Return” to bring the rabbis back. When asked, why are you having this event, Keith W. Schlegel, professor of English emeritus at Frostburg State University, responded for the group: “On the obvious level we commemorate the 50 of six of 16 rabbis who joined the struggle for civil rights in St. Augustine exactly fifty years ago. On another level our intent is to return to the values that motivated those rabbis and their allies: to return to their idealism, steadfastness, and self-sacrifice in pursuit of justice.”

Schlegel continued, “We all know George Santayana's adage, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ The sentiment has become cliché. But its truth stands, especially when stated in the positive. By remembering those who acted justly, we preserve a bulwark against injustice. Santayana prefaced his famous remark: ‘Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.’ Here is the very essence of ethics as conservation: the imperative is to retain the past as living.

“The nation’s oldest city is devoted to remembering its past. It is important to carefully recall with accuracy not only the glories of Spanish heritage but also the slaughter of 245 French Huguenot soldiers that secured St. Augustine for the Spanish, not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but also the bigotry that made it necessary. That bigotry,” Schlegel said, “was evident on the streets of St. Augustine and in the silence of the city’s political and religious leaders. It was confronted by justice seekers, African-American and white, Christian and Jewish, mere days before the act passed Congress.”

“The Return” of the rabbis highlights the little known fact that the Holocaust motivated involvement of some Jews, especially in Reform Judaism, in the American Civil Rights movement. The historic alliance between Jews and African-Americans preceded World War Two, but, as Schlegel points out, “The rabbis we celebrate this month knew how genocide renewed that powerful alliance after the war. The Holocaust demonstrated the ultimate consequence of bigotry. Here's part of what the rabbis wrote in their jail cell explaining ‘Why We Went’ (to St. Augustine): ‘We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler's crematoria. We came because we know that second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man's capacity to act.’”

Here again is Santayana's adage as it appears at Auschwitz today: "Wer die Vergangenheit nicht kennt, is dazu verurteilt, sie zu wiederholen."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top