Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks at Forest Hill's Holy Blossom Temple in March 1962.
“Old Man Segregation is on his deathbed,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said before a large audience at Holy Blossom Temple on a Thursday evening in March 1962. But he followed up with a warning: “Integration is not some lavish dish that the federal government will pass out on a silver platter. We must struggle for it. We must fight for it.” Showing his usual eloquence over the course of his speech, King was optimistic that equality would be achieved: “The long arc of history bends towards justice.”
King’s appearance at Holy Blossom was but one episode illustrating the kinship and close cooperation that existed in the 1960s between Toronto’s Jewish and black communities, and the leadership role that Holy Blossom’s membership played locally in supporting the U.S. civil-rights movement.
Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut arrived at Holy Blossom in early December 1961. Born in Germany in 1912, he had been studying law in Berlin when the Nazis rose to power, and fled to North America. He had established himself as a well-regarded community leader in St. Paul, Minnesota, when he accepted appointment to Holy Blossom in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood, where he would serve as senior rabbi until 1978, and then as senior scholar until his death in 2012.
As part of the new rabbi’s duties, the congregation expected him to be a leader of and advocate for the Jewish community—duties which Plaut adopted with zeal. He established a regular series of public-affairs lectures in which he discussed politics and social issues, analyzing and addressing the ways in which the Jewish community was affected by world events. The outspoken but articulate rabbi’s speeches proved popular, drawing large audiences composed not only of Holy Blossom members, but also Jews and non-Jews from across Toronto.
As part of his push to engage the Jewish community in public affairs, Plaut also began inviting important guests to speak in Toronto. When these talks were first organized in early 1962, speakers included journalist Drew Pearson, who questioned whether the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR could heat up, and labour unionist Walter Reuther, who lectured on the future of organized labour. The most notable speaker that year, however, was Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil-rights activist who, on the evening of March 15, spoke on the theme of “Non-Violence and Racial Justice.”
(Left: Canadian Jewish News [March 9, 1962].)
Earlier that day, under the auspices of Holy Blossom’s Social Action Committee, King also addressed a smaller group of about 60 local clergymen and rabbis, leaders of civil liberties organizations, members of the Toronto Negro Business and Professional Organization, and journalists. Both at a luncheon and in the evening, dressed in a conservative grey suit and adopting a casual manner, King ranged across a broad array of topics, the directions of his commentary largely dictated by audience questions.
“It is a sorrowful fact that the Church is the most segregated major institution in the U.S.,” the guest of honour told the luncheon crowd, offering critical words for all religious denominations. He argued that churches, in the American South as well as the northern states, were slow to welcome black people, even if the denomination, as an institution, had endorsed integration. “The problem is that the noble pronouncements of ecclesiastical council filter down all too slowly to local congregations,” he concluded, as clergymen in attendance nodded their heads in agreement.
(Right: Globe and Mail [March 15, 1962].)
The civil-rights leader discussed non-violent tactics adopted in the fight against segregation, such as the lunch-counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides. But he also acknowledged the limits of such non-violence in places such as apartheid South Africa. “At least in Mississippi we can hold a meeting and get it out to the press,” he said. “There’s no freedom of speech or assembly in South Africa.”
He was asked about the effectiveness of the Freedom Rides, a series of protests in summer 1961 aimed at pressuring the Interstate Commerce Commission to end segregated buses and transit stations. King emphasized the effects of these demonstrations, noting that they’d not only given black people an increased sense of dignity, but “also educated whites—although the whites may not have realized it.” The question was of particular interest to at least one in the audience: Holy Blossom’s young assistant rabbi, Jerald Bobrow. A native of Brooklyn, Bobrow had taken part in Freedom Rides in the American South in June 1961. (Later, after he’d left Holy Blossom for a New York City post in June 1963, Bobrow participated in King’s march on Washington.)
King deftly stick-handled when asked if integration would lead to miscegenation. He stated, simply, “Individuals marry—not groups.” With slight humour, he added: “Our basic aim is to become the white man’s brothers, not his brothers-in-law.”
“It was an off-the-cuff occasion,” wrote Bernice Dyment, a Canadian Jewish News columnist. “Dr. King proved himself to be a real Major Leaguer in the art of fielding questions. One could not help but be impressed by the deep sincerity with which he spoke, with his knowledgeability, and with his practical and realistic approach to the problem.”
(Left: Toronto Star [March 16, 1962].)
The Baptist minister dined with Plaut and his family at their home that evening. Though the rabbi already recognized King as a historically important figure, he remembered the civil-rights leader as “utterly modest and easy to speak to.” When they returned to Holy Blossom that night, the sanctuary was jammed to capacity with a diverse audience—paying $3 per ticket (roughly $24 today)—to hear King’s “highly moving address.” Another thousand, Plaut recalled, gathered outside and listened to the speech through loudspeakers.
Opinion was divided among activists, King said, about the progress being made in the civil-rights fight, with sentiment ranging “from extreme optimism to extreme pessimism.” On one hand, many states had made strides toward integrating schools since 1954, and the federal government had intervened to press the issue in Little Rock. On the other hand, King warned that too much optimism was an “illusion wrapped in superficiality,” noting the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan as an example. King insisted that the best approach was a balanced, realistic assessment of conditions. “I agree that we have come a long, long way and I agree that we have a long, long way to go,” he said.
King dismissed any notions that black people ought to be patient or that the solution to segregation was “only a matter of time.” He strongly asserted: “Time is neutral. Time can be used destructively or constructively. We must help time and the time is right now.” These sentiments would be echoed, the following April, when King penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
For the Toronto crowd, King recounted his October 1961 visit with President John F. Kennedy. Touring the White House with Kennedy, the civil-rights leader was shown the room where Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. King recounted at Holy Blossom that he told the president, “I’d like to see you come back in this room and sign the second Emancipation Proclamation”—referencing an attempt to convince the president to issue an executive order to end to segregation. Kennedy had been receptive to the idea, but not quite enthusiastic, King recalled.
Asked what Canadian students could to to assist the civil rights movement, King requested that “any Negro—whether he comes from the West Indies or wherever—can find a place to live.” Discriminatory housing practices were a regular concern of local Toronto black activists. He also suggested that raising funds for civil-rights organizations and repeatedly voicing one’s public opposition to inequality would prove helpful.
“We have faith in the future. We shall overcome,” King stated that evening, 18 months before his famous address during the march on Washington. “One day we shall be able to say: Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last.”
The following year, in early May 1963, as King was being arrested and police commissioner Bull Connor was turning fire hoses on peaceful civil-rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, Holy Blossom’s Social Action Committee launched a fundraising drive. Establishing the Martin Luther King Fund, committee chairman—and later a provincial judge—Milton Cadsby called upon synagogues, churches, service organizations, and prominent citizens to donate.
“We are doing this not as Reform Jews but as citizens of a democracy,” Cadsby stated. “We believe the Gandhi-like tactics of Dr. King are appropriate to the situation facing his people in the South. We do not believe in violence or mob disorder.” Many prominent Torontonians, including Pierre Berton, Philip Givens, Gordon Sinclair, and Rabbi Abraham L. Feinberg, publicly endorsed the fundraising campaign. Local black activists like Leonard Braithwaite, Dan Hill, and Bromley Armstrong played instrumental roles in the success of the Martin Luther King Fund.
Assistant Rabbi Bobrow urged citizens to write letters to political leaders, as he had himself done. “I viewed with disgust and dismay the Nazi-like treatment of Negro women and children peacefully demonstrating for their constitutional right in Birmingham, Ala. The image of dogs used against human beings casts a pall of shame over all America,” Bobrow quoted for a reporter from his own telegram to President Kennedy and Prime Minister Lester Pearson. “I urge you to use your good offices to end this reign of terror and bring about a just and righteous solution to the tragic situation.”
Within 10 days of the fund’s launch, through mostly small donations of two, five, or 10 dollars from across Canada, $2,500 were raised and a bank draft was on its way to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help cover bail in Birmingham and other urgent needs of the civil-rights movement. The organizers of the Martin Luther King Fund, however, also received one letter and two telephone calls of hateful messages and accusations of being communists.
(Right: Canadian Jewish News [May 24, 1963].)
That June, the Social Action Committee organized a fundraising concert at the O’Keefe Centre, featuring folk group the Travellers and jazz artist Oscar Peterson, preceded by a $2-a-plate luncheon the day before. Singer and social activist Harry Belafonte was the luncheon’s guest of honour and sang an impromptu rendition of “We Shall Overcome” accompanied by the Travellers—said to be the first time the song had been sung in Canada as a civil-rights anthem. On the strength of the O’Keefe Centre concert, by the end of June, Cadsby announced in local newspapers, the fund had grown to $8,000.
Not long afterward, however, the synagogue was broken into and the funds stolen. “I am very sorry that you had a misfortune at the Holy Blossom Temple,” King wrote Cadsby after being informed of the theft. “These things happen, however, in the most guarded situation. It is good to know that the break-in will not in any way defeat the continuance of your efforts.” The Baptist minister added: “I cannot express in words the deep inspiration that comes to all of us.…When we gain this kind of creative backing, it gives us renewed courage and vigor to carry on. You have demonstrated in words and deeds that you are real friends to the cause of justice and freedom.”
Under Holy Blossom’s leadership, the Martin Luther King Fund continued to raise funds for the civil-rights movement for a number of years in a variety of ways—including having ordinary, middle-class congregants carry picket signs and shake cans for donations outside of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1964 while Alabama governor George Wallace spoke inside. Support for the civil-rights movement, John Moscowitz and Natalie Fingerhut assert in A Rabbi of Words and Deeds (Holy Blossom Temple, 2002), galvanized the Jewish community and led to mobilization in support of Israel, Jews in the USSR, and labour unions.
In March 1965, in the wake of police and vigilante violence against activists marching in Selma in support of voting rights, an interfaith “service in solidarity” was held at Metropolitan United Church followed by a march to the American Consulate. Rabbi Plaut was among the speakers who addressed the audience of 2,000:
There are some in our community, perhaps even many, who view this service and this march of solidarity with apprehension and dismay. “What place have ministers in political questions?” they say. “What place have they in the streets, marching and singing?” To them we say, “Where else ought religion to be if not in the streets, in the factories, and in the Houses of Parliament? All too long it has been isolated in churches and synagogues and has become ethereal and utterly irrelevant.” I doff my hat to the students who have put idealism before comfort, and service to men before their own needs. They have shown more true religion than many of us who smirked and smiled with dried wills and comfortable hearts. They have indicted many of us, clergy and laity alike; they have rekindled in many a new confidence in the power of popular will and the strength of the people’s voice.
Afterward, Plaut was among the 400 local religious leaders who led the 1,500-person procession from the church to the consulate, and among the 10 who met briefly with Consul-General W. Park Armstrong in the second-floor library. While they presented a petition asserting the solidarity of local rabbis, priests, and ministers with non-violent civil-rights activists in Alabama, outside in the cold, demonstrators sang and chanted. The affair received national media attention. One angry letter-writer in a local newspaper, however, complained that the 400 religious representatives leading the march weren’t “real clergymen [but] just bums, beatniks, hoodlums and prostitutes dressed up as clergymen by international Communistick [sic] party together with the NDP.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. had been scheduled to return to Toronto in October 1965, according to Star society columnist Lotta Dempsey, to speak at a Teach-In at Varsity Arena, but events elsewhere demanded his attention. In May 1966, it was Coretta Scott King, who hadn’t accompanied her husband to Toronto in 1962, who came to town in May 1966 to give a lecture at a fundraiser for the SCLC at Massey Hall.
As the 1960s progressed, through his regular column in Holy Blossom’s Temple Bulletin, Rabbi Plaut identified tensions beginning to appear in the relationship between Jews and blacks. In the fall of 1966, he discussed how the rise of the Black Power movement—and the appeal of “physical retaliation for ills suffered and imagined”—was making white liberals increasingly uneasy, even disillusioned. Jews and their property had been targeted by frustrated black rioters in metropolitan centres across the United States in the mid-1960s. And numerous prominent people, such as widely read author Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), were making overtly anti-Semitic remarks. Though he was critical of black leaders who remained “regrettably silent on these outbursts,” Plaut worried about growing negativity among Jews, and implored his community not to waiver in their support of civil rights. “Justice remains immutable, and we cannot look for rewards in the struggle,” he wrote in October 1966. “I hear much of Liberal ‘disengagement’; there must be no Jewish disengagement in this cause.”
While he was in Cincinnati to give a series of lectures, Plaut heard the news of King’s murder in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He immediately cancelled his engagements and flew home to Toronto to be among the speakers at an interfaith service held at St. James’ Cathedral on April 9, along with representatives of local Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, and United churches. “We were stunned and angry—and afraid,” Plaut recalled in his autobiography, Unfinished Business (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981). “The evil genie of violence had at last broken free of its containment. A gentle, beautiful soul was crushed, and all of us would bear the consequences.”
Braving windy winter weather that afternoon, 20,000 people attended a civic memorial service for King at Nathan Phillips Square the same day. That evening, speaking to a more modest gathering of 400 at Holy Blossom Temple, Plaut was heartfelt. “The Lord spoke through him. Like the old prophets he said things people did not want to hear,” Plaut said. King, he added, brought religion “back where it belongs—out in the issues of the day,” and praised him for not seeking tolerance, but rather “only our love and our decency and our sense of equality.”
The kinship felt by Toronto’s black and Jewish communities, Maureen Murray wrote in the Star (February 22, 2000), gradually waned. Cooperation from the 1940s to 1960s had brought public attention to local instances of racism. “Together they created test cases,” historian Sheldon Taylor told Murray of the type of collaboration once commonly seen. “A black couple would go and try to rent an apartment and when they were refused, a white couple, often Jewish, would immediately go and see if the apartment was still available.”
As time passed, however, the communities’ paths diverged. From one perspective, Taylor told Murray, barriers seemed to disappear for an increasingly prosperous Jewish community, while the black community continued to confront racism. On the other hand, Jewish leaders struggled to understand increasingly vocal black activists. Even demographics, Murray notes, played a part in weakening ties as the new waves of immigrants arrived who had no knowledge of, or stake in, the historical relationship between the two communities. Nevertheless, the legacy of their collaborations live on through the societal changes they helped launch: the passage of the Fair Accommodation Practices Act and the Fair Employment Practices Act, and the creation of the Ontario Human Right Commission.
The article originally referred to Rabbi Plaut fleeing Germany with his wife. In fact, he was not yet married, and rather met his wife, Elizabeth, at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Thanks to Rabbi Yael Splansky of Holy Blossom Temple for drawing attention to the error.
Sources consulted: W. Gunther Plaut, Page Two: Ten Years of ‘News and Views’ (Holy Blossom Temple, 1971); and articles from the Canadian Jewish News (December 22, 1961; March 9 & 23, 1962; May 24, 1963; August 21, 1964; and February 27, 2003); the Globe and Mail (March 15 & 16, 1962; May 9, 10, 16 & 18, June 27, and November 18, 1963; March 15, 16, & 17, 1965; January 20, 1986; and January 22, 1988); the Jewish Western Bulletin (April 12, 1968); the National Post (February 13, 2012); and the Star (March 16, 1962; June 26, 1963; January 18, 1966; April 10, 1968; and February 22, 2000).