thumbnail of American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Rabbi Israel Dresner, 1 of 2
Hide -
This transcript was received from a third party and/or generated by a computer. Its accuracy has not been verified. If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+.
[Background noise] [Interviewer] Okay, so Rabbi Dresner, my first question is, do you remember how you first heard about the Freedom Rides? [Dresner] Yes, I remember how I first heard about the Freedom Rides. My-- [ringing sound] [Interviewer] Okay, so here we go. Rabbi Dresner, I'm going to ask you once again, sorry about the confusion there, how did you first hear about the Freedom Rides? [Dresner] I first heard about it actually from the newspapers because in May of 1961 the first Freedom Ride, the members were utterly heroic and they were beaten to a pulp when they hit Alabama and Mississippi on the Freedom Ride and then I was approached by a colleague of mine, another rabbi was a friend of mine, who asked me if I would be interested in going on a Freedom Ride. His name was Martin Friedman, he unfortunately died in August of 19-- of 2007 and he was, he knew that I was somebody
who was very pro-civil rights and, as he was, and he asked me if I would be interested and I said, "I certainly would," and he said "we'll contact you," and eventually CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality, which was then headed by a great African-American leader named James Farmer, did contact me and asked me if I would be prepared to go on an interfaith interracial Freedom Ride and I said I would and that's why I got into it. [Interviewer] I want to talk to you about now, kind of before you were involved, because one thing we're really interested in is how the first wave of Freedom Riders affected the general public, especially affected people like yourself, people who were in the north. Who were born in New York or Mass-- or wherever. And
they're seeing these things for the first time. So you don't have to go into your participation on the Freedom Rides here, but I want to talk about, do you remember where and how and what you saw, as kind of the first image, the first images coming back from the Freedom Rides? [Dresner] Stop. I'm not sure I understand the question, after I came back from the Freedom Ride? [Interviewer] No, I'm talking about before you were on the Freedom Rides at all. You're in New York and the Freedom Ride is going on-- [Dresner] The earliest Freedom Ride occurred five weeks before my Freedom Ride, so it wasn't a long time. [Interviewer] So about that first wave of Freedom Rides. [Dresner] I do remember. [Interviewer] What was it? [Dresner] I was in my early thirties at the time and I was an old bachelor at the time, I had not gotten married, I didn't get married until several years later and I didn't own a television set, believe it or not,
in 1962 because I worked nights as a rabbi, weekends, holidays, etc, and so I found out really about the Freedom Rides from the New York Times and from radio and I was enormously impressed at the time because this seemed to be the fruition of what Dr. King had started some years earlier in Montgomery in terms of the Montgomery Bus Boycott where he stressed non-violence and I remember in 1955 when the Montgomery movement began in December after Rosa Parks wouldn't move on the bus, I remember saying "it's the only way it'll work in America is to have a non-violent kind of Gandhian struggle," and this young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr. is a genius, I remember saying that in '55 and '56 while the Montgomery movement was going and then when the Freedom Ride started in May I said "this
is exactly the same thing, it's a non-violent kind of protest to show America that what's wrong with America, the things that don't live up to the American dream, the American ideal, the American-- Declaration of Independence and so forth and I remember being enormously pleased at the brilliance of a tactic that was being used by CORE at that time with the Freedom Rides. [Interviewer] Did you have any idea of-- I think one of things for a lot of people in the north and around the country is they were just shocked by the violence that that met these first Freedom Riders. So yes it is this great tactic, but on the other hand it's meeting this incredible violence. [Dresner] I was not shocked by the violence because I was a relatively, and you'll forgive the lack of modestly, I was a relatively well-informed American and I knew to some extent, not the way an African-
American would know it in his bones and in his guts, or her bones and her guts, but I knew the terrible violence that had been used against African-Americans. In those days we didn't use the term African-Americans, we didn't even use the term "blacks," we used the term "negro," that was the term all the civil rights leaders used, that Dr. King, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and so forth and so on, so I was not shocked at the terrible violence that occurred on the first Freedom Ride because I knew what Alabama and Mississippi were unfortunately capable of. [Interviewer] Ok. Do you think the rest of the country, you were a reasonably informed person, but do you think the rest of the country knew what was-- what the south was like and ignored it, or do you think the rest of the country didn't know? [Dresner] I think America generally ignored the African-
American. It was something peripheral, it wasn't central to the American psyche and so oftentimes people know something that they repress or suppress. The same thing happened with the Jews of Europe. People didn't know exactly what was going on in Auschwitz, they probably never heard the name Auschwitz, the most terrible of the death camps where a million and a quarter million Jews, men, women, children, were murdered but on the other hand they knew that the Jews had disappeared from their neighborhood, from their town, from their city, where were they all going, and they knew that their cousin who was living in another city or town, the same thing had happened, and so forth but people try to repress things that are not something they're particularly proud of and I think most Americans with regard to the race problem in America are in that category. It doesn't mean they're evil people, they're normal people, they have a life to live, they want to earn a living, they want to raise their kids and so forth,
but at the same time they close their eyes to the reality of America and part of the reality of America was something that none of us could be proud of. Namely slavery, namely segregation, namely discrimination, namely bigotry, hatred, lynching, etc. etc. [Interviewer] I think one of the brilliance of the Freedom Rides was that in some ways it made people, normal Americans kind of have to choose sides. You could no longer ignore it. [Dresner] I agree with you, I think the Freedom Rides did bring the terrible condition of Jim Crow in America, of discrimination, segregation, etc. to the forefront and it put it on the front pages of newspapers, I remember newspapers were in good shape in 1961, they weren't going out of
business the way they are today when you're interviewing me so that I learned about it as I told you, I didn't own a television set I told you, and I learned about it really from the newspaper and from radio at that time. And in that sense the Freedom Rides were brilliant in I think in getting a problem that was swept under the rug up and over so that you couldn't avoid it or evade it. [Interviewer] Great. [silence] Was there an interest, do you remember, in the Freedom Rides around the country, the first set, for normal people from Americans from, from people that you knew, you had an interest, but did other people interested in what was going on once this violence, this real confrontation took place? [Dresner] I don't fully
know the answer to that question because my family was not spread across America in those days and we didn't, we didn't have cellphones etc etc, email and I was not really in communication with lots of people in San Francisco or Houston or whatever, I'd never been to those places in fact at that time. But I think it became much more a reality for Americans, it finally came to-- I think what happened in Selma in 1965 on the Pettus Bridge finally brought the majority of Americans into facing up to the reality, that was four years after the Freedom Rides, remember. That was June of 1964, I'm not sure it was June, it could've been earlier, it might've been March of 1965. [Interviewer] I'm going to interrupt, but this is one of the places where our film is only going up to the Freedom Rides.
[Dresner] It certainly brought it more to the forefront but I still think most Americans in 1961 wanted to continue to evade, avoid, ignore what we call quote "the race problem." [Interviewer] One of the things that's been really interesting to me in reading Ray's book and some other books and talking to people about the Freedom Rides in this era is John Kennedy was not this real proponent of civil rights, was not that advanced. So talk about because that's how we've come to think of him. But where was John Kennedy in terms of civil rights, at that point? We're talking about 1966. [Dresner] We have to see people in terms of their time. Abraham Lincoln has racist statements, for example. That doesn't mean he
was a racist in terms of his time. He was way ahead of 95 percent of the white people of his time. But you have to understand that John Kennedy was not a racist but on the other hand he was a political pragmatist and he was a political realist and he had a deal with Senate and a House of Representatives which were dominated by southern Democrats in those days, today its southern Republicans who dominate the south but in those days it was southern Democrats, they held most of the committee chairmanships and so forth and so and so on. So John Kennedy was far from being a hero on the race issue and his attorney general, it hurts me to say, Bobby Kennedy was way behind the times, in my opinion, in terms of showing courage and guts and going out on a limb on the race issue. On the other hand compared to most American politicians I think the Kennedy brothers were decent and John
Kennedy of, you remember, 1963, I know it's after the Freedom Rides, delivered his famous speech in June introducing the Civil Rights Act which was passed under Johnson in 1964, the Public Accommodations Act. The one the year before the Voting Rights Act of '65 and he delivered a magnificent speech on television which I watched, I still didn't own a television set, but I watched it on a friend's television set I remember and I was crying when I watched it, the way I was crying when Obama got elected a month ago. I'm a good crier, so I think you have to see the Kennedys in terms of their times and in terms of the other politicians and so forth. John Kennedy was an Irish Catholic, as was Bobby Kennedy, and the Irish Catholics are not among the most pro-civil rights groups in American history. You would remember the 1863 riots in New
York, the draft riots during the Civil War. It was mainly Irish Catholics who killed black people in those riots, if you remember. But on the other hand they were ahead of the other white-- most of the other white politicians of their day. [Interviewer] One of the things that I think the Freedom Rides probably did was it was the first time where the Kennedy government had to become engaged in civil rights, and it did, I think, want you to talk about this, but it did kind of drag the Kennedys in, kicking and screaming maybe, but they were dragged into the civil rights struggle at that point. [Dresner] I agree with you that the Freedom Rides brought the Kennedy administration into the whole issue of "what are we gonna do about race relations which have stood stagnant for a hundred years in America?" You have to remember that
the first Freedom Ride was held less than four months after John Kennedy was inaugurated as president. He was inaugurated January 20th of 1961, the first Freedom Ride left around May 5th, and I'm not exactly sure of the date, but it was the first week of May in 1961 so that John Kennedy had all sorts of problems the way every president does, he had the problem with the Bay the Pigs which occurred during those first few months, and so forth and so on. There was a recession that had started under Eisenhower, his predecessor, and so forth, the usual things at all presidents have to deal with but it became more and more difficult for the government to ignore the terrible discrimination against African- Americans which had existed, which continue to exist, and which unfortunately to this day still to some extent exists in America, although we have made progress. [Interviewer] Tell me again
I think that you told me a little bit, but it kind of segued from one thing to another, I want you to tell me as one story. How did you come to be a Freedom Rider? [Dresner] Well I think the most important influence upon me was with the fact that I am Jewish. My parents are both immigrants to this country, my father told me what life was like for a Jew in the part of Eastern Europe that he came from. I had become a rabbi, I knew Jewish history as well as I knew American history and I knew of all the terrible discrimination against Jews culminating in the Holocaust during World War Two. My father lost in the Holocaust 20, no, over 30 first cousins. The only part of the family that really came to America was my grandparents and my father, brothers, and sisters, my uncles, and aunts. The uncles and aunts of my
father, and his cousins, remained behind in Europe, they couldn't get in because there were discriminatory immigration laws in those days, and except for two of them everyone else was murdered among his cousins, their spouses, their children, etc. etc. so that I was fully aware of what hatred can lead to. Germany after all is a great country and no one can take it away, they produced lots of Nobel Prize winners, they produced lots of geniuses, musical geniuses, etc., scientific geniuses, etc. etc. They're a country and if it can happen in Germany it can happen anywhere and unfortunately 150 years of slavery happened in the country I was born in, and the country I loved: the United States of America. 100 years of segregation, legal segregation, quote "legal" followed the 250 years of slavery and that went on
and America simply-- "so there was a lynching in Mississippi last Thursday, so what I got bigger problems," and so forth and so on so that you have to understand that the experience of Jews was something that had a profound effect on me, that was one of the reasons I entered the rabbinate. And also the teachings of Judaism had a profound effect upon me. I mean the Bible, what Christians call The Old Testament was written by Jews, it was written in Hebrew, and it starts off in the first chapter by telling us there's one God and one humanity. Everybody is descended from one Adam and Eve, kind of thing, the rabbis in the Talmud, that's a post- Biblical Jewish work, asked the question "why did God choose to start the whole shebang with one Adam and Eve, why didn't God create ten Adams and Eves, eighteen Adams and Eves, or whatnot," God could have done that, and the answer of the rabbi, I'll quote it in Hebrew: [speaks Hebrew]
"so that no one can say to his fellow, 'my ancestors are better than your ancestors.'" So that's the basic Biblical teaching and there's one commandment in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which is called the Torah, which is the first five books-- the correct pronunciation today is To-rah, but American Jews use the word "Torah" so I'll stick with that pronunciation. In the Torah there's one commandment that is repeated in 36 different ways and it's the commandment that has to do with the "ger," the stranger, so that in the book of Exodus it says [speaking Hebrew] "you shall not oppress or wrong the stranger." [Speaking Hebrew] "For you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The five books of Moses, the Torah,
over and over again reminds the Jew that "you were slaves, you were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt for hundreds of years. You have to understand the plight of other people who are taken advantage of, who are exploited, who are enslaved, etc etc," and over and over again this commandment appears, a chapter after this verse that I quoted, [speaks Hebrew] [speaks Hebrew] "you shall not oppress the stranger for you know the heart of the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt," and that commandment is repeated 36 different times in various ways. The stranger is anyone who is different from the majority. The stranger is different in religion, different in skin pigmentation, different in gender, different in sexual orientation, etc etc. [Interviewer] So we'll just keep it a little short, but
why was it important, do you think for the Freedom Riders, for the Freedom Rider movement to have a rabbi from New York join? [Dresner] I think it was important, that CORE understood that America is a multi-religious nation and interestingly enough one of the areas that America has been most successful has been in the area of religion. We've had our problems religiously, there was discrimination against Catholics and so, but basically we haven't killed each other because of religion the way other countries have murdered each other because of religion. In in Northern Ireland they've been killing each other because of Protestant Catholic for decades and centuries. In Lebanon they've been killing each other Christian and Muslim for centuries. But America has been relatively successful in having a multi-religious kind of society and
I think CORE understood that if we could get that element on the scene, maybe Americans would understand that we can have a successful multi-racial society as well as a successful multi- religious society. So they wanted to have people of different religions and in 1961 the Roman Catholic Church wasn't yet in the movement, it was before Vatican Two, so you couldn't get any Catholic priests at that time or nuns to go on a Freedom Ride, but we had Protestant ministers and we had rabbis in our Freedom Ride, we started out with fourteen Protestant ministers, eight white and six black, and four reform rabbis and we wound up with ten of us getting arrested, eight ministers, five white and three black Protestant ministers and two reform rabbis getting arrested. [Interviewer] When you, knowing what had gone before you in the Freedom Rides, you're
coming after Anniston, after the bus burns, after they get beat up in Birmingham, and everything, when you walked in that lunchroom were you scared? [Dresner] I was scared on the Freedom Ride but everybody has-- is scared of different things. So I for example I'm very un-technical, anything technical scares the heck out of me. My kids laugh at me, they treat me like some moron in terms of the computer, in terms of-- in terms of screwing up, a screw into something, or hammering a nail and so I'm much more scared than the average person on that level but on the other hand I'm not scared about going to new places, I hitchhiked through Europe when I was 21 years old for five months with a-- what is called a backpack,
in those days was called a rucksack and a sleeping bag on my back in countries where I didn't know the languages, ten countries in Europe. I even hitched through the Iron Curtain at that time in Austria because there was an Austrian-Soviet Zone and I got to Vienna. And so for some reason those things don't scare me as much as they scare other people. Everybody has different fears and I was scared but rationally scared, I think. I said, "well five weeks ago the people risked their lives much more than I am now because this is now come to the front pages of the newspapers, it's on television and it's less likely and it's also less likely that they're going to beat the living daylights out of ministers and rabbis than it is out of just ordinary civilians," so I was a little bit shrewd if you want to call it that [laughing] in estimating the probability and possibility. But that didn't mean that I
wasn't scared. [Interviewer] Let's cut for a second. Before, but I think, I wanted to talk a little bit about the fact that the Freedom Rides became the first kind of nationwide, multi-ethnic, multi-generational part of a movement, something that in later years the movement became famous for. So there were things before the Freedom Rides, so there was Greensboro, there was the Nashville sit-ins, but they were mainly young black college students, That's it was but the Freedom Rides was something different, it was multi-ethnic-- [Dresner] Multi-religious. [Interviewer] --religious, all these things, talk about the fact that the importance of that to the Freedom Riders. [Dresner] I, as I alluded earlier, I think it was very very important that the Freedom Rides understood that it has to be multi-racial, it has to be multi-ethnic, it has to be multi-religious, and while we weren't aware of
gays and lesbians in those days because everybody was in, or almost everybody was in the closet, I'm sure it was multi-that also. And so that the Freedom Rides were trying to say to America "we are a diverse country, let's act like the diverse country where every part of the diversity is equal and it's treated equally and has an equal opportunity to make it up the ladder," and so forth and so on, so I really thought the Freedom Rides were just brilliant, the conception of it, but remember the Freedom Rides had a predecessor. In 1947 CORE had a, I think it was called a Journey of Reconciliation, which Jim Farmer, no Jim Farmer wasn't on it, but Bayard Rustin was on it, and I'm not sure if Jim Peck was on the first Freedom Ride and was probably beaten, he was a white guy, beaten the most in the May '61 Freedom Ride, if he was on the first one.
And they went for weeks through four sort of upper southern states: Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, I think. Which I won't use the term "better" but were less bad than, let's say, lower southern states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and so forth in terms of race relations so that somebody had come up with the idea earlier and I just think that CORE in 1961 it really did a wonderful job in terms of moving the Civil Rights Movement forward because in '54 you had Brown vs. Board of Education but nothing happened really. In '55 something did happen with the Montgomery Improvement Association, Dr. King's movement starting in December. But even that when they won the court case finally a year later, nothing really changed, it changed in Montgomery, but nothing really
changed in the rest of the of the south and the country. And we have to remember one other thing: America was not just a bad place racially in the south. America was bad for black Americans all over the country. It was worse in the south, that's true, but that didn't mean it was wonderful up in New York or New Jersey where I come from now. And bringing northerners as well as southerners to the movement I think was also a brilliant move, it was saying "this is a national problem, this is not just a Georgia problem, this is not just an Arkansas problem, this is an Illinois problem, is a North Dakota problem where there aren't many blacks," and so forth but there are other groups, North Dakota has Native American Indians and they're discriminated against in North Dakota so that I think that the Civil Rights Movement was a blessing to all Americans in my opinion, not just to black Americans.
American Experience
Freedom Riders
Raw Footage
Interview with Rabbi Israel Dresner, 1 of 2
Contributing Organization
WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/15-zp3vt1hv9r).
Episode Description
Rabbi Israel Dresner was on the Interfaith Freedom Ride: Washington, DC to Tallahassee, Florida, June 13-16, 1961
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
(c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: barcode357558_Dresner_01_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Duration: 0:30:15

Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-zp3vt1hv9r.mp4 (mediainfo)
Format: video/mp4
Generation: Proxy
Duration: 00:30:19
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Rabbi Israel Dresner, 1 of 2,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 21, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Rabbi Israel Dresner, 1 of 2.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 21, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Rabbi Israel Dresner, 1 of 2. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from