The excitement was palpable as the crowd awaited Martin Luther King, Jr., in the packed sanctuary of Congregation Solel.
On that day in June, 1966, the civil rights leader was late—and as the diverse crowd waited for him, the tension mounted.
“There was this great sense of anticipation and excitement,” recalled Congregation Solel past president Gail Goldstein, who was a young mother living in Highland Park at the time.
While the crowd waited, a youth choir from the First Baptist Church of North Chicago and a folk singer performed, and then local dignitaries made brief speeches. It seemed like King might never arrive.
“And then you heard people whispering, ‘He’s here, he’s here,’” Goldstein said.
“We were all sitting there waiting and hoping he would be all right, and when he finally came, it was such a relief,” said Shana Lowitz, a fellow congregant who lived in Glencoe at the time.
Some 46 years later, Congregation Solel is recognizing King’s appearance with a commemorative plaque. It will be dedicated Friday, Jan. 13, three days before the holiday set aside to celebrate King’s life and achievements.
The recent Nobel Peace Prize winner was visiting Chicago in 1966 along with fellow leader Ralph Abernathy in an attempt to spread the civil rights movement beyond the south. Formed of rabbis from Highland Park, Northbrook, Deerfield and other north suburbs, The North Shore Fellowship of Rabbis invited King there that day to speak on discriminatory housing practices.
Chicago was known for being segregated, and realtors and mortgage brokers practiced “redlining”—turning down African-Americans who wanted to buy homes in certain neighborhoods. Lowitz recalls that a black family that became her neighbors only went looking for houses at night, because they didn’t want to attract attention.
“There were people who were concerned about black people moving into the neighborhood,” she said.
While Lowitz and others don’t remember the details of King’s speech that day, they do remember how it made them feel.
“I got the visceral impression that his energy and devotion came from a love for people, for all people,” said Arthur Segil, a fellow past president of the congregation and Highland Park resident. “I didn’t think he was energized by anger.”
Hearing King’s message in person had a huge impact, Goldstein said. She later followed King down State Street in Chicago for a march in support of open housing practices.
“It was quite an experience to walk down the middle of State Street and see hostile faces on either side of you,” Goldstein recalled.
Long before King came to speak, Congregation Solel was involved in civil rights issues, according to Michael Ebner, a Lake Forest resident who organized the effort to dedicate the plaque.
“Our rabbi and our congregants were involved in fair housing, that is, integrated housing; we ran a tutoring program in Cabrini-Green, the Chicago Housing Authority project on the north side,” Ebner said.
The congregation also ran a summer camp for inner city kids, and one of the rabbis was the principal Jewish advisor to King while he was in Chicago. A delegation even went to Selma, AL, to march for civil rights.
“This really fits into a larger context,” he said.
Ebner hopes the plaque will give younger congregants who don’t remember King’s visit a sense of Congregation Solel’s history and tradition.
He compared the dedication of the plaque to the tradition of reading the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt during Passover every year.
“We want each new generation to remember that story and cherish that story and make it their own because it’s really a benchmark story in the history of the Jewish people,” Ebner said. “And likewise, we feel that the speech by Martin Luther King from our pulpit in 1966 was a defining event in the history of our congregation.”
Rabbi Evan Moffic, who leads Congregation Solel, said he thought the idea to dedicate a plaque was fantastic as soon as Ebner approached him.
“It’s something we take pride in and that’s part of our vision for the future,” Moffic said. “We strive for the ideals that Dr. Martin Luther King preached.”
The congregation will dedicate the commemorative plaque following its fourth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Sabbath worship service at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the temple, 1301 Clavey Road. Attorney Alexander Polikoff, who was lead counsel in the historic fair housing case Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority, will serve as guest speaker; members of the public are invited to attend.