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On the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, ‘where do we go from here?’

The Jewish people came to support Black Americans; now it is time to stand up and give back, even as we continue to fight discrimination that is still aimed at us.

Civil rights leaders pose in the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. Pictured are, standing from left: director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Mathew Ahmann; Rabbi Joachim Prinz; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis; Protestant minister Eugene Carson Blake; Congress of Racial Equality leader Floyd McKissick; and labor union leader Walter Reuther. Sitting from left: National Urban League executive director Whitney Young; unidentified; labor union leader A. Philip Randolph; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader Roy Wilkins.Getty Images/Getty

I was 32 when I helped plan the March on Washington — officially the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — that took place 60 years ago Monday. On that day, more than 250,000 people assembled to publicly proclaim their support for an end to racial segregation and for more employment opportunities for disenfranchised people of color.

It was there, before the vast crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his momentous “I Have a Dream Speech.” I’m proud — even humbled — to say I helped write the opening paragraphs and copyrighted the speech for King (the first and only political speech in American history with that protective and economically important designation), and so naturally it is close to my heart.


However, rivaling the importance of King’s words, but often overlooked in the retelling, was the speech given just before King took the podium, a speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, head of the American Jewish Congress, one of the March’s organizers. He told the crowd:

“I speak to you as an American Jew. As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.

“As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience — one of the spirit and one of our history... From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom ...

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”


The gathering on Aug. 28, 1963, was historic in terms of sheer number but also in relation to the racial mix, which was 25 percent white people. Clearly, the evolution of mass media — and its images from the Jim Crow South it fed into northerners’ living rooms every night — was creating converts to our cause who suffered no direct impact from racism, beyond feeling the shared sting of their nation’s shame.

Television seemed to be an empathy machine, showing horrified white Americans what was happening to Black Americans in their name. And a high percentage of those white attendees at the March were Jewish. Our movement had always been supported by Jews. As Prinz alluded, between the Holocaust and the enduring legacy of slavery, the history of the Jewish people and Black people have much in common.

The alliance and cooperation between the Black and Jewish communities enabled much of the national political and legislative success of King and those of us who worked with him from February 1960 until his assassination on April 4, 1968.

I never thought I would live long enough to write these words: The rise of antisemitism continues in the United States in 2023. I was astounded to hear that Israel had been described as “racist” by a Michigan representative in commenting on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. According to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League, there were 3,697 acts of vandalism, harassment, and assault aimed at Jewish people in 2022, an increase of 36 percent from the previous year.


The best way we can honor Prinz and stand with him is to grasp that we all have to work together, to speak up to end discrimination. That, to me, is the most important message to come out of the March 60 years ago. The Jewish people came to the support of Black Americans; now it is time to stand up and give back, even as we continue to fight discrimination that is still aimed at us.

I often remind people that the word jobs came before the word freedom in the March proclamation. The disenfranchised have always been a practical group of people. Well, the job in 2023, more than a half century after the speeches of King and Prinz, is to work in harmony to stamp out every variety of discrimination.

Seeing the legacy of the joint struggle between the Black and Jewish communities was the bedrock of King’s successful efforts, as reflected by the enactments of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We need more of that potent combination now.

Of course redeeming the soul of America continues to be an uphill battle. The discrimination goes so very deep. It is at the root of the recent Supreme Court rulings overturning of the use of affirmative action in college admissions and Roe v. Wade, the growing violence against the LGBTQ community, the continual uptick in — and flaccid response to — gun violence.


That this is occurring at a time when we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the March is infuriating. The narratives conflict: the memories of my beloved King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Prinz’s speech and his recollections of Berlin simply do not align with the realities of the broken country I see all around me.

To borrow the defining question from Martin Luther King, “Where do we go from here?”

Clarence B. Jones, author of “Last of the Lions,” was the personal attorney, adviser, and speech writer for Martin Luther King Jr., and is chair of the board of the Spill the Honey Foundation.