When Rabbi Israel S. Dresner got a call 50 years ago asking if he’d be willing to go on a Freedom Ride aimed at desegregating bus stations in the South, he did not hesitate.
“Remember, I’m a guy who grew up in the 1930s when Hitler was on the rise,” Rabbi Dresner, now 82, said in a recent interview from his home in Wayne, N.J. “How can I not be against racism?”
Of course many Jews were against racism, but few were willing to put their lives on the line to end segregation. Rabbi Dresner was, joining what became a total of 436 riders on more than 60 rides throughout the South. The rides took place from May to November in 1961 — a few of them ending in bloody riots, most the others in arrests. But in the end, they made progress.
In September that year, the Kennedy administration, which had been trying to detract media attention from the rides amid the Cold War, relented. The president ordered the federal government to enforce anti-segregation laws that had been on the books for years, but were virtually ignored in the South.
“The Freedom Rides really marked the maturation of non-violent direct action,” said Raymond Arsenault, a professor at the University of South Florida and author of “Freedom Rides: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” “They took the struggle out of the courts and into the streets.”
His book is the basis for a riveting new documentary, “Freedom Riders,” directed by the award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, which airs on PBS on May 16. Of the significance of clergymen like Rabbi Dresner, Nelson said: “The role of the religious community was incredibly important in the Freedom Rides. It can’t be overemphasized enough.”
About half of the 436 riders were white, and of the white riders roughly 25 percent were Jewish. Not all of them were rabbis, though. “Some were college students, some were rabbis, and some were just activists and intellectuals,” Arsenault said. “It was an interesting coming together of all these different groups.”
Rabbi Dresner would become a prominent spiritual leader in the broader civil rights movement. He was not only arrested on his first Freedom Ride in June 1961, but three more times in the consecutive summers that followed.
He also became good friends with Martin Luther King Jr., who, the film makes clear, angered many black Freedom Ride leaders who felt let down when King refused to join them on the rides. King’s advisers told him that the rides were courting violence, and he would better serve the broader movement by remaining its eloquent public face. King agreed.
But Rabbi Dresner remembers King fondly. “He spoke twice at our synagogue in Springfield, N.J.,” the rabbi recalled, adding that he first met King when he went to comfort civil rights activists, including King, who were jailed in Albany, Ga., in 1962.
King asked Rabbi Dresner and others to organize a group of clergymen to help desegregate a town in Georgia. Within weeks, they rounded up 75 ministers and rabbis, all of whom were arrested.
Two years later, King was jailed again and sent Rabbi Dresner a letter asking him to organize clergymen to demonstrate against segregation sites in St. Augustine, Fla. Again, he and 16 other rabbis were arrested. “The largest number of rabbis ever arrested together in America,” the rabbi remembers proudly.
“When I first met him,” Nelson, the filmmaker, said of Rabbi Dresner, “he said, ‘I’m the most arrested rabbi in the United States.’ He talked about [his commitment to civil rights] being part of his duty as Jew, as his commitment to mankind.”
Rabbi Dresner told The Jewish Week that activism was ingrained in him from an early age. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father ran a delicatessen, and he spent much of his teenage years involved in Habonim, the Zionist organization youth group.
The first time he was arrested was in the 1947, as a teenager protesting outside a British-owned business in Midtown. He and other Habonim members were trying to draw attention to the British government’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to British Mandate Palestine.
He was let off because he was a minor. But his mother was less forgiving, admonishing him for sticking his neck out. “That was the mentality of my parents’ generation,” he said, noting that his parents had worked hard to become respectable Americans and shunned public attention.
His involvement with the civil rights movement was an extension of that earlier activism. And it extended into Jewish causes well after the civil rights movement’s heyday. In the 1970s, he was arrested for marching on behalf of the refuseniks. And since the early-1980s, has been an outspoken critics of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
“I love Israel,” he said. “I’ve been there 36 times. I was married there. Israel means a great deal to me, and I just feel that their policies are self-destructive.”
He said his congregants used to give him a harder time about his stances on Israel than they did about his involvement with civil rights. But while most his congregants were supportive of efforts during the civil rights era, a few were uncomfortable. Mainly they felt that as representative of Jews, rabbis shouldn’t be breaking laws and that it didn’t reflect well on the community.
Still, Rabbi Dresner found — and still finds — even casual expressions of racism among Jews unacceptable. “I’ve met Jews who can’t put three Yiddish words together and yet they say ‘shvartze.’ And they know what they mean.”
He found the anti-Semitism occasionally voiced by prominent black figures inexcusable. But he was shocked that Jews tended to be less forgiving of blacks than of whites. “Blacks never killed Jews en masse, or perpetuated a Holocaust against Jews. Whites have. And yet we’ve forgiven white people,” he said.
Rabbi Dresner’s involvement with the Freedom Rides began with in June 1961, when he got a call from a Jewish friend who was an aide to James Farmer, the black civil rights leader who created the idea. The rabbi was told he’d be part of group of clergymen — the “Interfaith Riders,” made up of 14 ministers and four rabbis — who would ride a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee, Fla., on a trip that would take three days.
At each stop the riders were told to deliberately transgress a segregated site: a whites-only men’s room in at a local airport in Raleigh, N.C., for instance, or a bus stop in Sumter, S.C. The danger was less in seeing whether the local police would enforce the law than if they’d hold back the angry white mobs that were taunting each Freedom Ride group.
A month before Rabbi Dresner’s ride, Ku Klux Klan members set fire to a Freedom Ride bus in Anniston, Ala. When the riders escaped, police stood by idly as a mob beat them up. That same day in Birmingham, other Klan members pummeled riders with tire irons and chains.
“We were scared because we knew what had happened to other Freedom Riders,” Rabbi Dresner recently told NJ Monthly about a mob that gathered at the Sumter stop of his ride. “You could feel the hatred and tension in the crowd.”
The mob surrounded the bus, yelling “Outside agitators go home!” But at Sumter, his bus had police protection, and eventually the crowd went home. The riders made it safely to Tallahassee and were planning to take plane flights to their respective homes.
But when Rabbi Dresner got there, he and nine other clergymen decided to test one last segregated site they noticed: the airport’s segregated restaurant. They sat at the counters, and the waiters refused to serve them. Instead, they called the police. The clergymen were arrested for unlawful assembly and sent to the city jail. Even though they were bailed out the same day, they made national headlines and became known as the “Tallahassee Ten.”
The media attention Rabbi Dresner’s jailing received — along with the many other gruesome beating, burnings and arrests of all the other Freedom Riders — prompted the Kennedy administration to act. By September, the Interstate Commerce Commission was ordered to enforce desegregation laws that had already existed for interstate bus and rail stations.
“This was the first unambiguous victory in the long history of the civil rights movement, Arsenault says in the film. “It finally said, ‘We can do this.’”
Kennedy’s order gave the Freedom Riders hope, but few activists had any illusions that the larger war was won, least of all Rabbi Dresner. “We didn’t get very far in the beginning,” he said. And he continued to be take part in the civil rights movements well after the rides ended in November of 1961.
He not only organized clergymen on King’s personal request, but he marched with King from to Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
“Segregation and slavery has been a part of America for 300 years time,” Rabbi Dresner said. “It doesn’t go away easily.”
Still, he knew the Freedom Rides made progress. When he went back to Tallahassee in August of 1964 to serve out his brief prison sentence, he made a point to leave again by plane. He stopped at the airport restaurant that refused to serve him three years earlier, and was served his lunch. He was not arrested.
“Freedom Riders” premieres on PBS on Monday, May 16, at 9 p.m. Two hours. For an accompanying website with extra footage, additional show times, and sales of the DVD, visit www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/.