Rav Pinchas Teitz's Polo Grounds Talk on Civil Rights

I spoke earlier today with Dr. Rivkah Blau, daughter of Rav Pinchas Teitz, who encouraged me to share the below text of her father's speech on Civil Rights. The talk was delivered at a rally at the Polo Grounds on Sunday, August 25, 1963 to urge participation in King's March on Washington later that week.

Special thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Ziring for turning my attention to this text, and to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for sending it to me.

Mr. Chairman, Reverend Clergy, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have the great honor to bring you greetings and blessings from the highest rabbinic tribunal in the world, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. I am here to express our full solidarity with the heroic struggle waged by awakened courageous Americans of all faiths to assure equal opportunity to our colored fellow citizens.

There is an old Talmudic saying that proper knowledge and awareness of a problem constitutes half a solution. Let me therefore, at the outset, define in as simple terms as possible, the problem which brought us out here this afternoon.

As we stand before the Almighty and this great assemblage, let it be declared without any reservations that racial discrimination of any kind, constitutes not only a social misbehavior or a civic crime, but a sin--a great sin, a sin for which, some day, we will be called upon to give an accounting to our Creator. Believing as we do that man was created in the image of G-d, it follows that he who judges his fellow man by the color of his skin debases the divine image of his own face.

Our racial problem represents a challenge to all that America stands for, and presents the greatest danger to our security at home and to our leadership throughout the world for in the final analysis, the strength of a nation rests upon its moral integrity. Of what avail are the billions of dollars we spend in foreign aid, the democracy we preach, if we discriminate against our fellow citizens? All our preaching is cancelled out by a single act of racial intolerance which is committed.

Our gathering here today is not only for jobs and freedom, but all the more for national security and world leadership in democracy, humanity’s sole hope for survival.

Speaking in Biblical terms, I would compare the March on Washington this Wednesday to the historic march of Joshua, leading his new-born nation freed from centuries of slavery, around the walls of Jericho. You will recall that the Almighty commanded Joshua to march around that fortressed city seven days, and on the seventh day, after completing the seventh circuit, they should “sound the horn, and all the people shall shout…and the wall of the city shall collapse.”

We, too, are faced with a wall, a Berlin Wall of discrimination, erected on Main Street in many a city and town throughout the United States. Let this March on Washington be the sounding of the horn, the clarion call whose echoes shall resound in the hearts and minds of all Americans, and thus lead to the complete tumbling down of the walls of separation and discrimination.

May the Almighty endow our legislators with vision to see, will to do, and strength to accomplish. Thus will we emerge from this crisis unified and strengthened as one nation, under G-d, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

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