Jacob Mortimer Rothschild was a steadfast supporter of the civil rights movement and racial equality. As a rabbi, he spread ideals of peace and unity to his Atlanta congregation, despite hostile public responses. Rothschild described Martin Luther King as a “spokesman who—like a prophet of ancient Israel—had fearlessly confronted the society of his day with its failures; had sought to rouse men to a vision of their own nobility,” and who “has earned his place as the moral leader of our social revolution” (Rothschild, 20 November 1963).
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 4 August 1911, Rothschild received his AB from the University of Cincinnati and completed his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College. He was ordained in 1936, and became the first Jewish chaplain to go into combat during World War II. In 1946 he was offered the pulpit at Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, where he remained until his death in 1973. As early as 1948 Rothschild unsettled congregants and aggravated Atlanta’s white community with sermons calling for racial tolerance. Due to his outspokenness, his synagogue was bombed in October 1958. Responding to the bombing, King urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to “convene a White House conference” that “could help recommit our nation to the peaceful settling of differences” (Papers 4:509).
King and Rothschild first met through membership in an interracial dinner group in Atlanta, and over the next several years they developed a close relationship. When King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after his April 1963 arrest, Rothschild praised the civil rights leader for his eloquence: “To my mind, it is without question the most moving and significant document I have yet read. May I congratulate you not only on the cogency of its position but on the power of its language and the beauty of its imagery as well” (Rothschild, 10 June 1963).
In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Rothschild organized a dinner honoring King. Over 1,400 people, both white and black, gathered at Atlanta’s Dinkler Hotel to congratulate the city’s native son in the largest biracial gathering in the history of Atlanta at the time. Many of Atlanta’s elite attended, including Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., Georgia Senator Leroy Johnson, and Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan.
In September 1967 King’s friendship with Rothschild was tested, after Rothschild confronted him about “scurrilous” and “untrue” anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli comments reportedly made by staff members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). “Do they really represent the position of the organization which you head and they serve?” Rothschild asked King. “I cannot believe so, particularly in the light of your many speeches in which you have publicly made clear not only the complete absence of any prejudice in your own heart but an empathy and a sympathy for Jews whether in the United States, in the Soviet Union, or in Israel” (Rothschild, 7 September 1967). In a five-page response to Rothschild, King confirmed that SCLC denounced anti-Semitism. He acknowledged that Hosea Williams had made the comment attributed to him out of anger, and assured Rothschild that, although he was unaware of any past negative comments made about Jews by James Bevel or Andrew Young, “I am sure that they were misquoted if any anti-Semitic impressions were given” (King, 28 September 1967).
After King’s death, Rothschild delivered the eulogy at a memorial service held for him at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. Rothschild died on 31 December 1973, after suffering a heart attack. Following his death Coretta Scott King called Rothschild a “true neighbor,” who would “risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others” (Greene, 435).
Blumberg, One Voice, 1985.
Greene, Temple Bombing, 1996.
King to Eisenhower, 13 October 1958, in Papers 4:509.
King to Rothschild, 28 September 1967, JMRP-GEU-S.
Rothschild, As but a Day, 1967.
Rothschild, “Introduction of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” 20 November 1963, JMRP-GEU-S.
Rothschild to King, 10 June 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.
Rothschild to King, 7 September 1967, JMRP-GEU-S.