How Martin Luther King, Jr. Learned Hebrew

Pierre M. Atlas writes about his uncle, Rabbi Seymour Atlas:

…From, Rabbi Seymour Atlas was the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Achim, an Orthodox synagogue in Montgomery, Ala. One day while going for a walk, the young rabbi bumped into the young minister who led the church down the street. That church was Dexter Avenue Baptist, and the minister was Martin Luther King Jr.

The men began a cordial relationship based on common interests as clergy. Uncle Seymour spoke several times to King’s congregation. King asked the rabbi to teach him to read Hebrew.
But as my uncle told me the other day, King had to enter the synagogue through the back door for his Hebrew lessons. "That was the tradition of the South," Seymour said. "If you let a black man come in the front door, you’d be ostracized. It was rough. There was lot of hatred there."
Many Southern Jews walked a fine line in those years, not wanting to anger the whites who held all the power, who were often anti-Semitic as well as racist. The synagogue board of directors took a "don’t rock the boat" attitude toward racial issues and they were hypersensitive to anything that might look like a pro-civil rights stance. Some Jews had even joined Montgomery’s racist White Citizens’ Council, which was linked to the Ku Klux Klan. "They said it was better to be on the inside knowing what the enemy was doing rather than guessing," Seymour told me. "They wanted me to join the WCC, but I wouldn’t do it."

I asked my uncle if he became involved in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. He said no. But in the next breath, he told me a story showing that he did, in fact, take his own stand.

Seymour had a black "domestic" who cleaned the house and helped his wife with the kids. The boycott meant that the maid, who refused to ride the bus, could not make it across town to the Atlas home. So Seymour drove her back and forth from her "colored" neighborhood to his home each day.
In response, his car was vandalized on several occasions. " ‘N-lover’ and N-words were painted on my car from top to bottom," he told me. "It was a very dangerous time." As the boycott progressed, my uncle got a gun permit and carried a revolver with him as he drove across town to bring the maid to his home. "I only had to use it once," he said. "I fired it in the air to scare off some people."…

Rabbi Atlas was forced out by his synagogue shortly afterward. Here is more on Rabbi Atlas from a scholarly article on Jews and the Civil Rights Movement:

…Twenty years later, as events surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott
began to unfold, another local Rabbi, Seymour Atlas of Congregation
Agudath Israel would suffer the same fate as Rabbi Goldstein. Known for
his liberal sermons and his outspoken support for civil rights, Rabbi
Atlas caused a split among members of his congregation, many of whom
were afraid of retribution from the larger anti-civil rights
population. Appeals for him to moderate his rhetoric instead pushed him
to the other extreme. Much to the consternation of his congregation, he
frequently appeared on local television and radio stations with Martin
Luther King, publicly discussing issues relating to desegregation, the
Montgomery Bus Boycott, and other civil rights problems. To dramatize
his activism, Life magazine featured Rabbi Atlas in an article that
included his photograph. The article depicted him as a maverick, whose
views were so progressive they were out of place in a southern city
such as Montgomery. At an emergency meeting summoned by his
congregation’s board of trustees, Rabbi Atlas was invited to recant his
support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and asked to henceforth submit
all public speeches he intended to deliver to the board two to three
days prior to delivering them (Life, 1956). Rabbi Atlas remained
unrepentant. At his next service he offered a defiant prayer in support
of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was more than the increasingly irate
trustees were willing to tolerate. Snubbed by his own congregation, a
dispirited Atlas tendered his resignation, and gave up his career as
Rabbi of the synagogue (Webb, 476).…

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4 Comments

Filed under History, Modern Orthodoxy

4 responses to “How Martin Luther King, Jr. Learned Hebrew

  1. Yochanan Lavie

    In Greek mythology, Atlas holds up the world. In our mythology, the world is sustained by tzaddikim. Coincidence? Maybe not!

  2. Lawrence M. Reisman

    Another story about race relations in the south. “The Temple Bombing,” by Melissa Fay Greene, tells the story of Rabbi Jacob Rothchild, the rabbi of Atlanta’s oldest and most prominent Reform temple. In it, she tells how Rabbi Rothchild invited Dr. King and his wife to dinner at his home. Driving to the Rothchild’s, the Kings got lost in a white neighborhood, and were afraid to ask for directions. Why? Either people wouldn’t believe that they were invited to dinner in a white home, and they would be arrested, or worse, or people would believe they were invited and show their anger at Rabbi Rothchild. Finally, Coretta King knocked on somebody’s back door and asked for directions, saying she and her husband had been hired to “serve a party” at the rabbi’s home.

    Times do change!

  3. This story reminded me of the stand Rabbi Weinstein in Baton Rouge took a year and a half ago after opening up his synagogue to Hurricane Katrina refugees. The temple Board of Trustees confirmed the irrelevance of their “faith” by locking the rabbi out. He was later readmitted but he’ll be retiring this year.

  4. Sorry to disappoint you, Shmraya, but Steven I has paskened that the Jewish role in the Civil Rights movement was a myth. (You see, none of the baby boomers he has spoken to were at Selma.)

    For the record, The Temple Bombing is a great read, even for those of you whose parents and grandparents didn’t attend Rabbi Rothchild’s Temple.

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