Remembering It From Here

Bill Kahn* in interview, 2008

*Bill Kahn z”l was director of the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis

About Dr. King –
I had him booked to come to St. Louis
Lindbergh and Schuetz roads was not built at the time
I struck out at all the liberal sites
Jerry Grollman stepped up and we booked UH [1960].

Always the night before Liberal forum
At a quarter to Six
One of the members hosted a dinner
This time Paul Berwald’s house.
I got there twenty minutes late
Off to the side
He’s leaning against a wall
He just got out of jail
He had been worked over pretty bad
I saw him standing there.

Folks, I said
St. Louis Post-Dispatch wants an interview
I had Shirlee with me
We walked outside
What’s this about an interview? Dr. King asked.
I’m going to drive you around St. Louis
And we’ll have a bite to eat
He feel asleep in three minutes.

There were twenty five hundred people at UH
People came up just to touch the cloth
Of his suit coat.

Then came the I Have A Dream Speech [D.C., August 28, 1963]
I chartered a plane
We had priests, ministers, rabbis
We flew to Washington
In those days
We walked town to the tarmac.
I slammed into Dr. King
Dr. King – you OK?
Mr. Kahn — you bailing anyone out of meetings nowadays?

I was in on a tutorial project in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
I brought Abe Boxerman from LA
A couple of J people
Outsiders to help create inside wisdom and community.

We were scared out of our minds
Tuscaloosa, Alabama:

They took us to a church
All kind of cars pulled up
I had Abe Boxerman with me from LA.
Mrs. Brown agreed to put us up
Abe was about 20 years older than me
He had a teeny little room
I had the couch.

All night long cars going around
Hey Bill – I am thinking — what are you doing here?
I got four kids and a wife back home.

I knew what I was doing there.

Next day –
They went to the YMCA exec in Tuscaloosa
He had them wait an hour and a half
They struck out there.

We went to where the African American kids
Played ball
Struck out there.

We went to Spellman College
There were nine guys playing basketball
Hey – you want to play?
I hadn’t played in 16 years
Where do I get a towel
You bring your own towel
You can use my towel after I use it
They’re watching me
What are you doing here?
I am looking for tutors
How many could you use?
How many in the day?
How many at night?
That launched the project
It’s called Vision
The name Dr. King gave it.

I Never Felt So Clean
Rabbi Jerome Grollman* in interview, 2007

*Jerome Grollman z”l was rabbi of United Hebrew Congregation, St. Louis

We had some difficulties in our town about race and religion
We decided we would stage a
Reconciliation march down Market Street
To the Old Cathedral
It was set for Sunday, November 24.
On Friday November 22, 1963
President Kennedy was assassinated.
On Sunday we took a busload from our Temple
More Necessary Than Ever Now
I was President of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association
(I have to admit I didn’t write that speech
They gave it to me).
All programs had been cancelled
TV people were looking for things to cover
We got national coverage.

We went to bat for the Jefferson Bank protests
And the March on Washington, August 28, 1963
And the March from Selma to Montgomery.

Highs: the march on Washington.
The rally it was really a love fest.
It had been a long day
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last speaker
Thank God, I said
(I was sitting in a tree)
When he spoke it was as if nobody else
had said a word.

We had buses taking us back to the airport
We drove through the Black ghetto
People lined the streets
They were mouthing thank you
Thank you thank you
Imagine that – thanking us for something
We all should have been doing all along.
I’ll never forget that [tears]
It was one of the highest times.
I never felt so clean.

Now Selma to Montgomery that was different
We went down on a chartered plane
When we got to Selma
People lined the streets but
They weren’t thanking us
They were holding confederate flags.
National Guard cautioned us not to engage them
We had to find sympathetic cab drivers
To get us back to the airport.
Bill Kahn was on that one.
In Montgomery there was a Confederate flag
On top of the Capitol Bldg.

In Montgomery they spit on us.

When Martin Luther King Jr. came to town
The JCCA Jewish Community Centers Association
Went to other congregations.
They all turned him down
Bill Kahn came to me
I said, sure.
He said, don’t you have to go before your Board?

It was a Sunday night, November 27, 1960
Full house, even the balcony
Dr. King he looked so tired
I suggested he rest beforehand
Bill Kahn had made an excuse to get him out of a dinner party
Earlier that night, Bill Kahn drove him around St. Louis
When Dr. King got here, I suggested he rest beforehand
He took a little nap in my red lounge chair 1/2 hour before his talk
I still have that chair downstairs.

He had no protection I think he came alone
I was protecting him
He was really in danger that night
Though we were well protected by the police outside.

I remember how I introduced him:
I thanked him for being here
He was supposed to have spoken at a Temple of a friend of mine
Bob King in New Haven
He never showed up
‘Cuz he was in jail
I thanked him for not being in jail that night.

Afterwards we went downstairs to the reception
everybody was hugging everybody
It was a love fest.