Dr. Kings message still resonates, in Bay Area and across nation

Memories and recollections have been all over the media this past week as America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Along with the memories are the necessary questions —  What has changed? What has not? Is anything better? Or have we hit a wall in race relations?

No one can possibly think that all is right with the world, that the march for jobs and freedom so enthusiastically embraced 50 years ago solved all our problems. There is too much bad news every day for anybody to think that.

We must acknowledge the progress that has been made, and more importantly, we must rededicate ourselves to the tasks that remain to be done.

As long as there is injustice in the world, there will be no peace in the world. Those courageous marchers of 50 years ago recognized that, and we must remind ourselves of it today.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (beard) marches with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965.

In San Francisco, 50 years ago, as in other cities, a core group of leaders from different faiths took the lead — marching in Selma, going to Mississippi to help register African Americans to vote, hosting Dr. King when he came to town.

When Dr. King visited San Francisco in 1964, he spoke at Congregation Emanu-El, Grace Cathedral and a public meeting at the Cow Palace. My husband and I took our two daughters, then 12 and 14, to the Cow Palace to hear him speak. They never forgot the experience. Nor did I.

His vision of a better world in which all are equal is, I think, one of the motivations for my daughter Elisabeth’s lifelong career as a criminal defense attorney. It certainly has strengthened my commitment to working with people of all faiths to help make a better San Francisco.

I treasure a picture I have of Rabbi Alvin Fine welcoming Dr. King at Temple Emanu-El that year. I celebrate the stories told by Rabbi Fine, Monsignor Eugene Boyle, Rabbi Sidney Akselrad of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, and the other faith leaders when they came home from Selma.

And what about those who helped to found the San Francisco Human Rights Commission — Earl Raab, now an elder statesman of the Bay Area Jewish community, and San Francisco attorney Howard Nemerovski — among others? Those efforts led to the establishment of the San Francisco Conference on Religion, Race and Social Concerns and subsequently the San Francisco Interfaith Council.

We have the instruments to make change happen. All we need is the will and the determination.


Rita R. Semel is a founder and past chair of the San Francisco Interfaith Council and Executive Director Emeritus of the Jewish Community Relations Council.