He’s been called the most arrested rabbi in America. And for Israel S. Dresner, that is something to be proud of.
Today, the 82-year-old emeritus rabbi lives quietly in Wayne. But during the 1960s, Dresner was fiercely involved in the civil rights movement, riding buses to help integrate the South as part of the historic Freedom Rides. Arrested and jailed four times, he risked beatings and intimidation. But he also met and became friends with the movement’s leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The Freedom Riders really had a part in one of the great American revolutions,” says Dresner. “We helped change the tenor of the country. People aren’t as bigoted today as they used to be. There’s been real progress.”
In 1961, Dresner was a young rabbi at Temple Sha’arey Shalom, a Reform congregation in Springfield. It was a time of growing turmoil and political foment. The civil rights movement was picking up steam, and students in the South had been taking part in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
A colleague asked Dresner to take part with other clergy in the first interfaith Freedom Ride, and he agreed. He was progressive in his politics and had always been interested in finding ways to help victims of racism.
The group left for the South on a regularly scheduled Greyhound bus in June 1961. They had no idea what lay ahead.
Dresner’s experiences on that historic trip are featured in a new documentary, Freedom Riders, that airs on PBS in May, marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. The film tells the harrowing story of the more than 400 black and white Americans who risked their lives as they journeyed together through the South.
“It’s a story about the beginning of the civil rights movement that many people don’t know,” says Stanley Nelson, the film’s director. “It really shows that a group of people can help to change the world.”
Dresner was just 32 when he joined the Freedom Rides. The reaction to the first busload of Freedom Riders had served as a warning of what might happen. “They beat the living daylights out of them,” says Dresner, whose ride followed about one month later. “When we started out, we were really scared.”
At each stop along the Freedom Ride, participants were given an assignment. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Dresner was asked to go to the local airport with a black clergyman and integrate the whites-only men’s room. The next morning, a picture of the two men exiting the bathroom appeared in the local newspaper.
Wherever the Freedom Riders stopped, they tried to integrate a bus depot or a restaurant, facing local opposition and threats. When the group arrived in Sumter, South Carolina, the entire police force was waiting for them, as well as a huge crowd of angry locals, remembers Dresner.
“We were scared because we knew what had happened to the other Freedom Riders,” he says. “You could feel the hatred and tension in the crowd. And the protesters seemed angrier with us because we were clergy.” Luckily, as the evening wore on, the locals went home.
Dresner vividly remembers the fear he experienced the night he met with King and other activists at the home of a local civil rights leader in Albany, Georgia.
Members of the White Citizens’ Council—which Dresner describes as a middle-class Ku Klux Klan without the robes—found out about the meeting and surrounded the home, holding up signs and yelling, “Outside agitators go home!”
The crowd grew and lurked outside the home for hours. Dresner was afraid the mob was going to burn down the house. But King was calm and collected, he recalls, and the crowd eventually left.
“He obviously had been through this before dozens of times, and he had a cooler disposition than me,” Dresner says.
That was not his first meeting with King. Dresner had visited the civil rights leader in 1962 in an Albany jail, where King was being held for civil disobedience.
“When I met with Dr. King, he tapped on the wall of his cell before we spoke. In the next cell was a group of young black college students, and they immediately began singing freedom songs. He said he didn’t want the guards to hear our conversation,” Dresner says.
At the meeting, King asked the young rabbi and the Reverend Ralph Lord Roy, a white Methodist minister, to bring clergy from the North down to Georgia to take part in demonstrations. They agreed and returned with a group of 75 priests and rabbis who were all arrested in what was then the biggest roundup of clergy in U.S. history, Dresner says.
After that first meeting, King and the rabbi formed a close friendship, and Dresner became part of King’s inner circle of religious advisers.
“Not all great people are nice privately—many are arrogant. He was never that way,” says Dresner of King. “He was a wonderful, wonderful person. He had a great sense of humor, and he was almost invariably upbeat. He never showed despair publicly. It was a mechaye to be around him,” says Dresner, using the Yiddish word for delight.
In 1964, King wrote Dresner a letter from jail, asking again for his help. He wanted him to bring a group of rabbis from the North to Florida for a demonstration. Dresner recruited 16 rabbis for the trip to St. Augustine, a city that was incredibly violent and segregated at the time, he says. All the rabbis were arrested in a protest there.
In the ensuing years, King visited Dresner’s synagogue in Springfield and gave speeches to his congregation. By his second visit, King was already a national figure, having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to the civil rights movement.
Although Dresner’s congregation was young and progressive, not everyone was thrilled with the thought of their rabbi going off to protests and running afoul of the law, he says.
The concerns began with his first arrest—during his first trip to the South—after a sit-in with other Freedom Riders at an airport restaurant in Tallahassee, Florida.
“They were very tolerant of my arrests, but when a rabbi gets arrested for the fourth summer in a row, you begin to think, ‘Is he a meshuganeh?’” says Dresner, using the Yiddishism for crazy person. “I had very few bar mitzvahs then, which is why I could go. That’s one thing you can’t miss when you’re a rabbi.”
Some members of his congregation even denounced Dresner’s actions, saying his conduct did not befit a rabbi. But Dresner was not prepared to give up his involvement in the movement.
Dresner attributes his political activism to his faith, his country and the traditions of the Jewish people: “Judaism teaches the oneness of mankind,” he says. “And it is Jewish tradition to help the poor and the afflicted.”
Born in a tenement building in New York, Dresner is the child of Eastern European Jews. He says it was, in part, his family’s experience during the Holocaust—his father lost much of his family—that led him to become a civil rights activist.
Dresner later left Springfield to become rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, where he served for 26 years. He married and raised two children.
These days, he lives alone in a modest house in Wayne in which almost every surface is covered in books. There is little art on the walls, save for a plaque commemorating his lifetime membership in the NAACP and photographs of Dresner with King.
He occasionally gives talks on his experiences during the civil rights era, and he remains politically active. He was one of the first rabbis to publicly oppose Jewish settlements in the West Bank; more recently, he protested against the Iraq War. His police record includes three more arrests during political protests.
“The country isn’t what it ought to be in terms of race relations, but things are infinitely better than they were,” he says. “Fifty years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a black man to be President. In New Jersey, we have a Hispanic senator and a Jewish senator. We’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m proud of our country for that. But we still have a long way to go.”
Jacqueline Mroz is a frequent contributor.
Freedom Riders—50 Years Later
In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began sending civil rights activists on buses through the deep South as a way to test a U.S. Supreme Court decision ending segregation for interstate travelers. The activists became known as Freedom Riders.
Over five months, the Freedom Riders tried to desegregate bus terminals, restrooms and lunch counters. It was a dangerous undertaking, and many of the participants endured savage beatings and imprisonment.
The Freedom Riders came from diverse backgrounds: They were black and white, northern and southern, male and female. But they all shared a commitment to non-violent protest for the cause of justice.
In May, PBS will honor the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders by retracing the 1961 rides with original Freedom Riders and 40 college students. PBS also will air the Stanley Nelson documentary film, Freedom Riders.