Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the 1941, James A.Wax served as the rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN, in the 1960s. Rabbi Wax supported racial justice, and during this period was a member of the Memphis Committee on Community Relations which worked towards integration. Here is his sermon which I found online in the Jewish Women’s Archives:
I shall speak only briefly tonight because of the time, but I do not feel that we can have a worship service as moral and responsible people without taking cognizance of what has transpired in these last days.
I am reminded of the speech delivered by President Roosevelt when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The President said in addressing the Congress, that December 7, 1941 would live in infamy. I think I can be rightly said tonight, that April 4, 1968 will be a day that will live in infamy.
Speaking this morning to the mayor of our city, I said to him that I spoke with mixed emotions, of sadness and anger, of deep and righteous resentment, and the view which I expressed is the view of the clergy of the city of Memphis. I know there are people in our city tonight who are not sad at what happened last night. I know there are some people in our city who might even be glad. I remember a few weeks ago at the Rotary Club when the television newscaster made his five minute report announcing that Dr. Martin Luther King was coming to Memphis there were those who sneered, and some who mocked the announcement. But I wonder who those people are, contrasted with Martin Luther King. Who is this man, Martin Luther King that the President of the United States should proclaim a national day of prayer? Whose death is mourned in the capitals of the world? Whose death is deeply regretted by responsible people, decent people, wherever they may live? Who is this man whose name was sneered and mocked by some of our so-called civic leaders? I shall answer very simply and briefly, Martin Luther King was a prophet, a prophet like Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah, a man who walked in the footsteps of Moses, (and if I were speaking in a Christian congregation, walked in the footsteps of Jesus). What did Martin Luther King do? Martin Luther King helped to bring freedom to the oppressed people yet in this free nation. He fought to break the chains that have oppressed people. He sought to give men dignity, he sought to make this a better world in which to live. O how the cynics sneered when they gave him the Nobel Peace Prize. They said, “What did he do to deserve it?” How little can people be! Here was a man in the tradition, the greatest tradition of Judaism and Christianity, bringing freedom to people, and we white hypocrites that speak about freedom for all people know full well that not many miles from here Negroes could not vote. In this very city, called a place of good abode, because their skin was black, they had to sit in the back of a streetcar. They were not even given the dignity of their names.
Martin Luther King was one of the greatest men of this century because he personified the greatest teachings in Judaism and Christianity, and he did it without violence. He sought to appeal to the heart and the conscience of men.
When I memorialized or tried to memorialize the late President John F. Kennedy, standing in this place, I said, “You judge a man not merely by the friends he has, but by his enemies.” Who are the enemies of Martin Luther King? Segregationists! And a segregationist is a bigot. A segregationist violates the laws of the Torah. A segregationist desecrates Judaism. These are the people who dislike Martin Luther King. These are the people that sneered when his name was mentioned at the Rotary Club. Ah, yes Martin Luther King’s skin was black, but his heart was whiter than those who would deny dignity to men because their skin was black. Yes, I speak harshly. I speak Judaism! I speak the Torah! And it is time for us to take it seriously.
Many of us have worked for a month and six weeks from early morning until late at night, from conference to conference, courier boys carrying one message to another. I just spoke with two outstanding men, national figures, and one of them said to me, “Rabbi, I remember when you said several weeks ago we were going to have trouble in Memphis.” And I wasn’t the only one. We have begged, we have cried. And I mean it literally. “Let us solve these problems and avoid death and destruction and desecration.” And tonight I hear of a plan that some people in this city are willing to make certain arrangements that take the form of charity. The black man doesn’t want any charity. The black man wants to live with honor and dignity and respect.
Yes, Martin Luther King was a champion of social justice and a prophet of peace and that is why he is mourned by people throughout the world. He is dead. His body is now in Atlanta. But I will say this because I believe it is so, that what he stood for has not died. The decent people of this city are filled with a righteous indignation and eve if some of us die in the process, justice will be done. Martin Luther King did not die in vain.
This city shall witness a new spirit and the memory of this great prophet of our time shall be honored. There will be the bigots and the segregationists and so-called respectable but unrighteous people who will resist. But in the schema of history God’s will does prevail. Yes, I speak with anger, I speak with a broken heart. I’m not sad that it happened in Memphis. Some people said, “Isn’t it too bad it happened here?” No my friends, I love this city but this doesn’t disturb me as such. I am disturbed by the conditions of racial injustice that prevail here. I am concerned about the bigotry and prejudice in our community. This disturbs me.
Martin Luther King was one of the world’s greatest men in this time. He was detested and forsaken and spat upon in his lifetime, but his memory lives on tonight. That memory is an inspiration; that memory is an encouragement; that memory has given those of us who were weak a new resolve and a new determination that God’s will will be done. He had a young life of less than 40 years. We are deeply grateful. We are grateful for his heroism, his devotion, his commitment and we say in faith the words of Job, Adonai natan, Adonai lakach, y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach--The Lord hath given. The Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Amen.
A remarkable document! A few word choices might be different today, but the prescience to recognize that we would still remember Dr. King and what he stood for half a century later is powerful. I wish I could have heard Rabbi Wax and his heartbreak and anger, but it frankly pours off the page.
I did have the chance as a boy to hear the Coretta Scott King. Dr. King was scheduled to be the speaker at my brother’s college graduation in May of 1968. His widow spoke in his place, a month after his death. I remember hearing her that day, hearing fear and brokenness, but also power and determination in her voice. I am sure that everyone who heard her that day left with an indelible emotion in their hearts. A sense that until the work is done, we should keep an eye on the prize, and work for a time of true equality. We have come a long way, but we are not yet there. Let us take this moment of memory and turn it to resolve to accomplish the task for the sake of our ancestors who fought and died for freedom, and so our children might know peace.