Jewish Light’s Bob Cohn appears on KMOX regarding MLK’s visit to St. Louis


On Tuesday, St. Louis Jewish Light Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Bob Cohn was a guest on The Charlie Brennan Show with Amy Marxkors to discuss his article (read below) on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s visit to St. Louis in 1960.

Cohn discussed King’s visit, the support he received from St. Louis Jews, and the impact his visit had on the community.

You can hear Bob’s entire interview here.

When Martin Luther King Jr. visited United Hebrew

Considering his major accomplishments as the leader of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement – for which he earned a well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize – it is still hard to believe that King was only 39 years old when he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in April 1968.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

It is well-known that King had many supporters nationally in the American Jewish community, most notably Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said he felt like his “feet were praying” when he marched with King from Selma to Montgomery.

Support From St. Louis Jews

King also had supporters and friends in the St. Louis Jewish community and made some significant historic speeches at Jewish venues at a critical time in his career. Several of his most prominent supporters in the local community have passed away, including Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman of United Hebrew and his cousin, Rabbi Bernard Lipnick of B’nai Amoona. Both traveled south to support King in his marches and rallies on behalf of full civil rights for African-Americans.

One of those stalwart supporters is still a vital part of the local Jewish community: William (Bill) Kahn, former longtime executive vice president of the Jewish Community Center and later of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, of which he has been executive vice president emeritus since his retirement in 1990.

In 1960, when King’s activities were getting national attention and generating controversy, Kahn was serving as the executive director of the JCC. Even within the normally progressive local Jewish community, there were some contingents who felt threatened by King’s movement, fearing that he was trying to effect change too rapidly and possibly stirring things up more than necessary.

Kahn was not among those naysayers. He believed passionately in King’s mission, having been inspired by his late own father, Ziggy Kahn, who directed the JCC in Pittsburgh and tried to lead a boycott against the Nazi Olympics in Berlin in 1936.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visits St. Louis

With the backing of the late Isadore E. Millstone, then President of the JCC, Kahn arranged for King to be a speaker in the JCC’s famous “Liberal Forum,” a prestigious event that had previously featured speakers such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Clarence Darrow. King’s speech at the Liberal Forum took place on Nov. 27, 1960.

His topic was “The Future of Integration.” Because of the unprecedented size of the crowd, the event was moved to United Hebrew (then located on Skinker Boulevard), with the help of Rabbi Grollman.

Kahn received the Heschel-King Award back in 2008, along with Dr. Henry Givens, president of Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis. The award, conferred by Jews United for Justice, is annually presented to an African-American and a Jewish American who exemplify the spirit of cooperation and support for civil rights of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel.

The Liberal Forum”

At the Heschel-King Award ceremony, Kahn recalled King’s “Liberal Forum” talk at United Hebrew, including a dinner at the home of Paul Berwald before the talk. “Dr. King seemed exhausted,” Kahn recalled. “He had been arrested, roughed up and jailed in Alabama just before he came to St. Louis. To rescue him from the after-dinner questions, my wife Shirlee and I said we needed to go downtown to meet the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. We were able to give Dr. King a ride around St. Louis and let him unwind a little.”

King would later wow the crowd of 2,500 people at United Hebrew, spurring a 15-minute standing ovation, Kahn recalled.

King also spoke at Temple Israel, on Sept. 20, 1963, on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Over 3,000 people attended that event, where King discussed agape, a concept of selfless love that is central to Christian values.

Today, the Jewish agencies on the Millstone JCC campus still pay homage to King during an annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day program. Kahn helped to institute the observance, which has in recent years past brought together African-American and Jewish students for an event with speakers and school choir performances.

“Our task is to build upon Dr. King’s legacy, including his cooperation with Rabbi Heschel to make certain, as John F. Kennedy said that ‘here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own,'” Kahn said.