To open a two-hour tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the president of the Jewish Museum of New Jersey read the civil rights leader’s affirmation of the importance of music to his movement.
In a keynote address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, King said, “Jazz speaks for life…. This is triumphant music…. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.”
The reading by Max Herman set a tone of reflection and harmony that echoed through the audience of 200 in the overcrowded sanctuary of Ahavas Sholom, the 109-year-old Conservative synagogue in Newark, on Jan. 17, the day before the national holiday marking King’s birth.
In a moving personal reflection that was the emotional highlight of “Jazz Music and the Movement for Civil Rights,” Birmingham, Ala., native Gwen Moten spoke of the hatred and horror of growing up black in what King called “the most segregated city in America.”
Moten, an artist and cultural educator, is executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Cultural Development and Tourism in Newark and a member of the city’s Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission. Now in her mid-70s, Moten recalled being shielded by her parents from much of the racial prejudice that surrounded her in her youth, until she and some 1,000 others volunteered to take part in the “children’s movement,” led by one of King’s disciples, the Rev. James Bevel.
“We began to march,” she told the audience, “and Bull Connor [the city’s racist police chief] came in with his dogs, and his water hoses were so strong that the clothes were ripped from our bodies, and the dogs began to bite.”
Moten spoke of her 11-year-old friend Denise McNair, who invited her to attend a youth service one Sunday morning in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Moten’s mother told her “no.”
From her Sunday school classroom, Moten said, “we heard ‘boom!’ The earth shook beneath our feet. The walls trembled. No one said a word because we knew. Between 1957 and 1963 there had been more than 20 bombings that were unsolved, and we knew there was a bomb.”
As she sat there, she said, “a boy touched my shoulder and whispered, ‘Denise is dead.’” Her friend was one of four girls to die at the church in attacks by white supremacists.
At Denise’s wake at the McNair home a few days later, said Moten, King spotted her sitting alone. “With the deaths, he was close to desperation,” she said. But someone told her later that “when he saw this little black girl, he saw hope. My presence said to him, ‘Keep going.’”
Attorney Junius Williams, who took part in the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Ala., evoked King’s exaltation of jazz.
“Jazz gave us our identity,” Williams said. “We didn’t have the movies or the restaurants, but we got the music, and there was nothing better.”
Citing such politically outspoken jazz players as Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, and Max Roach as inspirations, Williams, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers-Newark, said, “The music was not enough for us. We had to go out and be on the front lines, and their songs were what we used to challenge Jim Crow.”
Noting the pioneering spirit of cooperation between Jews and blacks in the field of jazz, musician and composer Adegoke Steve Colson spoke of Benny Goodman, the first white bandleader to hire black musicians in the ’30s, including pianist Teddy Wilson, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and guitarist Charlie Christian.
“At the time it was very difficult to do that, so the concept of African-Americans and Jews working together is something that has taken a lot of courage on the part of the people who did it,” Colson said.
The final speaker, Jewish composer and jazz multi-instrumentalist David Amram, evoked the holiday of Passover, saying, “Let not the oppressed become the oppressor. We can never make that mistake ourselves of becoming that monster that was oppressing us, and if it comes up inside of us we have to repel that.”
Standing near the bima, Amram took up a series of wooden flutes to play a nigun, an improvised Jewish melody of prayer.
The program was the last of nine events featuring the theme “Jazz, Jews, and African-Americans: Cultural Intersections in Newark and Beyond.”
Also taking part in the salute to King were panel moderator Maxine Gordon, senior interviewer and jazz researcher for the Bronx African American History Project at Fordham University; tenor saxophonist Leo Johnson; and Robert O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.