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Remembering Rabbi Israel Dresner, a Freedom Rider in the civil rights movement

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This MLK holiday weekend is an especially poignant one for the family of a New Jersey man who's being buried tomorrow. Rabbi Israel Dresner was one of the earliest Freedom Riders in the 1960s and was close with Martin Luther King Jr. Dresner died of cancer this week at the age of 92. NPR's Tovia Smith has more.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Back in the early '60s, Rabbi Dresner used to leave his home in northern New Jersey and drive all night sometimes to join the Freedom Riders in protests of segregation in the South, where the so-called outside agitators like him were threatened...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come here, Rabbi.

SMITH: ...Beaten...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ISRAEL DRESNER: Take your hands off me.

SMITH: ...And arrested, you in this scene in Florida in 1964 and multiple others, including in Georgia in '62.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Put him in jail.

JIMMY RICHARDSON: You can see he's being bullied. You can see him being pushed around. But he was the kind of person that believed you got to show up.

SMITH: Jimmy Richardson (ph) is a documentarian and was a longtime friend of the rabbi.

RICHARDSON: It's one thing to stand in the streets and raise your fists. It's another thing when they arrest you in a state where they want to kill you. But he was the kind of guy that couldn't just stand by.

DRESNER: Well, my parents made it clear that I have certain obligations as a Jew.

SMITH: Speaking with NPR last month, Dresner said his activism was compelled by Jewish history, from slavery in Egypt up through the Holocaust, where he says most his father's family was killed, and, Dresner said, by Jewish religious teachings.

DRESNER: But what I emphasized in my lifetime was tikkun olam - to repair the world, to leave the world in a better place than you found it. And I've tried.

SMITH: Dresner first met Dr. King in 1962, when King was jailed in Albany, Ga., and they shook hands through the jail cell bars. Before they started to talk, Dresner recalled King knocked on the wall of his cell, signaling to the guys next door that he needed help making sure his plans would not be overheard.

DRESNER: And they started singing freedom songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: Oh, freedom.

DRESNER: Oh, freedom. I remember they sung "Oh, Freedom" over me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: Oh, freedom over me.

SMITH: It would be the start of a prolific and close collaboration. By 1964, King was using Dresner's nickname, asking for his help in Florida.

DRESNER: The letter reads, dear Sy, I am dictating this letter from the St. Augustine City Jail. I'm writing to you, Sy, because have been so close to our movement. Thirty or so rabbis would make a tremendous impact on this community and the nation.

SMITH: Recruiting more clergy was critical to broadening what was seen as just a Southern or Black problem into one that was seen as an American problem, as Dresner recalled in an interview with PBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DRESNER: Most Americans wanted to continue to ignore, quote, "the race problem." And in that sense, the Freedom Rides were brilliant in getting a problem that was swept under the rug up, up and over, you know, so that you couldn't avoid it or evade it.

SMITH: Over the years, Dresner and King would share pulpits several times, each traveling to preach to the other's congregation. After King's death, Dresner continued to be an active voice for civil rights and for the Black Jewish Coalition itself, which began to fray. What King once called Black activists' most constructive and trusted alliance was strained over the years, but Dresner continued trying to shore it up, speaking at Black churches, Jewish synagogues and schools. He was also an early champion for civil rights of all people of color, as well as women, LGBTQ and disabled Americans and Palestinians.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you want to stand and hold on to the grave and say Kaddish?

DRESNER: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Let me help you. hold on.

SMITH: Shortly after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Dresner went to pay his respects at his parents' graves.

DRESNER: (Speaking Hebrew).

SMITH: At 92, he was grateful, he said, that his life span was longer than expected, but he was also wistful at what King famously called the arc of the moral universe was also longer than expected.

DRESNER: We have a long way to go. I feel a little guilty leaving the present world where the forces of hatred and discrimination seem to be on the rise and democracy seems to be in danger.

SMITH: Dresner's efforts to help bend that long arc of the moral universe just a little closer toward justice will be memorialized on his gravestone with a verse from the Torah. Justice, justice shall you pursue. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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