The American Jewish Congress (AJC) served as an ecumenical partner to Martin Luther King in the struggle for civil rights. In 1958 King spoke to the AJC convention declaring, “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility” (Papers 4:407).
The AJC was founded in 1918 by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and other prominent Jews in response to the suffering of Jewish people during World War I. In 1920 a domestic agenda was added to the issues abroad. In 1946 the AJC published a Jewish Affairs pamphlet entitled Action for Unity, which discussed effective ways to promote “‘good will’ and better race relations,” and analyzed seven strategies—exhortation, education, participation, revelation, negotiation, contention, and prevention—for “improving community inter-relations” (Watson, 3; 4).
King’s first official contact with the organization came in January 1957, when AJC president Israel Goldstein responded to a telegraphed request from King and other black leaders for “support and advice for the deliberations” of the Southern Negro Leaders Conference (a precursor of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on 10–11 January 1957 (Papers 4:98n) . Goldstein condemned the bombing of four black Montgomery, Alabama, churches and two parsonages in the early morning of 10 January, stating: “All Americans dedicated to the democratic way of life join us in decrying the violence that has been employed in defiance of the law of the land and the spirit of human brotherhood” (Goldstein, 11 January 1957).
King’s advisor Stanley Levison served on the organization’s Manhattan Division Board and arranged for King to speak at the AJC’s 1958 National Biennial Convention in Miami Beach, Florida. Addressing the 1,500 delegates and guests, King called on the AJC to “assist in the development of platforms from which white moderates, liberals and others may speak and act toward effective ends,” asserting: “This is a time for vigorous and positive action” (Papers 4:409; 410).
Joachim Prinz, the organization’s newly elected president, met King at the 1958 convention. Prinz, who was expelled from Nazi Germany in 1937, became a steadfast supporter of King. Prinz picketed a New York City Woolworth five-and-dime store in 1960 to protest discrimination against African Americans at the store’s lunch counters. In 1963, he was one of 10 founding chairmen of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, addressing the crowd shortly before King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Four days after King’s assassination, Prinz joined Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and other religious and labor leaders in a silent mass march through the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, to honor King’s memory and press for an end to the sanitation strike that had brought King to the city. Prinz’s commitment to the civil rights of all Americans and the AJC’s long-standing dedication to that cause assured King of a strong ally in the Jewish community.
American Jewish Congress, All about the American Jewish Congress, 1993.
Goldstein to Ebenezer Baptist Church, 11 January 1957, RWP-DLC.
King, Address Delivered at the National Biennial Convention of the American Jewish Congress, 14 May 1958, in Papers 4:406–410.
Prinz to King, 28 October 1958, in Papers 4:517–518.
Maxwell M. Rabb to King, 11 January 1957, in Papers 4:98.
Watson, Action for Unity, 1946.