Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

Behind The News
April 4, 2008 2:21:32 PM PDT
I saw and heard him speak once. I was 15 years old. And Martin Luther King Jr. back then was a giant figure -- for civil rights, for justice. He spoke at my temple - in Los Angeles, where Orthodox Jews number very few compared to New York, "temple" is the accepted description, as much as synagogue -- and it was standing room only, and for the first time I became aware of security -- men in dark glasses and dark suits, with obvious little ear pieces and walkie talkies.

I listened to King's speech today -- his remarks at Temple Israel of Hollywood were discovered on reel-to-reel tape last year -- and it was remarkable to me how bonded at the time Jews and blacks were. King thanked the congregation for their financial support of the civil rights movement - and indeed at the time funding for organizers in the South came largely from Jews -- and he spent much time comparing the plight of the Jews of old to the plight of American blacks in the 1960s.

The Rabbi -- Max Nussbaum -- was very liberal. It was a sign of those times that he didn't say black or African American when introducing Dr. King. Instead, he unabashedly used the word Negro. Nussbaum was German, and spoke out against Nazism and fascism and intolerance. I remember him clearly when I was a young student, and Bar Mitzvah (he presided) and my confirmation.

There was an urgency to King's speech - as was his wont -- and I remember sitting spell-bound, not an easy feat for a 15-year-old. He talked about civil rights workers killed and jailed, and how the struggle for equality would not come easy nor be always peaceful.

He was a remarkable speaker; and it was more than slightly gratifying to hear the speech that affected me so much back then, again, today, on the 40th anniversary of his assassination.

If you were alive back in 1968, you will always remember where you were when you heard King was shot, remember how you felt, remember the reaction across the country. It was an unforgettable year, here in this country and around the world. Assassinations, student riots, a turning point in public opinion against the war in Vietnam. It was a year that changed things, everywhere. And not always for the best.

They are gathering in Memphis today and tonight, to remember Rev. King. Our Jeff Pegues is there for us tonight, at 11.

Also at 11, we have the story of a new homeowner - who put down $39,000 on a condo in Orange County. After she deposited the money, she discovered that there were some environmental issues with the soil the condos are built on. The homeowner -- a single mother - was given the chance to get her money back. She grabbed it. But the developer never sent it. So the woman rang our doorbell, and got Tappy Phillips and 7 On Your Side.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's weekend AccuWeather forecast, and Scott Clark with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11, right after 20/20.

Bill Ritter