When Ben Uchitelle arrived at United Hebrew Temple in the fall of 1960, the synagogue was already packed with more than 2,000 people. Uchitelle could only find a seat on the side of the room.
It wasn’t Yom Kippur but rather the opening of the 33rd year of a series called the Liberal Forum, sponsored by the Jewish Community Centers Association.
The speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Uchitelle recalled, “I and everyone in the audience was mesmerized by the eloquence of his remarks.”
Six decades later, Uchitelle still thinks about it.
He will discuss the experience as part of a celebration of the 60-year-anniversary of King’s visit to the synagogue on Skinker Boulevard, which is now the Missouri Historical Society Library & Research Center.
And that organization is organizing the virtual talk, which will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17 (the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day).
Koach Baruch Frazier, a St. Louis activist who is now a rabbinic student at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Rev. Gabrielle Kennedy, director of Faith & For the Sake of All, will also “reflect on what it means to lead congregations in the legacy of this renowned civil rights leader,” according to the society. For more information, visit https://mohistory.org/mediaroom/mlk-celebration
In 1960, Uchitelle was a young attorney and a member of United Hebrew. When he arrived, “the place was electric,” he told the Light.
King “started quietly and slowly and he just kept building up on the need for opening doors.”
The title of the talk was “The Future of Integration.” It was about three years before King delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech and more than seven years before he was assassinated.
King expressed dismay at the white supremacist groups in the South that prevented desegregation from occurring because they inspired fear in moderate white people and threatened Black people with economic reprisal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 1960.
“What communication did exist between the races is now closed,” King said.
King said he was impressed by President-elect John F. Kennedy, but his assessment of Washington, D.C. will likely resonate with many today.
“What we can expect is more executive orders and actions from (Kennedy). I am not too optimistic about getting all that is needed and wanted from Congress,” King said.
Still, King said, opponents of desegregation were “fighting a losing battle.”
And he was proven right.
Uchitelle, meanwhile, in 1961 founded Freedom of Residence, an organization to promote fair housing, which spearheaded the construction of integrated apartment buildings in St. Louis. He also served as mayor of Clayton from 1991 to 1998 and 2004 to 2007 and was a founder of Central Reform Congregation and a board member of Jewish Family and Children’s Service.
At 87, he still teaches a class on the U.S. Constitution at University of Missouri- St. Louis.
And he still thinks about King.
“Today, the contrast between our present leader and the actions of Dr. King are so profound, it brings to (mind for) me and many others what can be good and what can be important versus what can be dire and evil, so Dr. King’s words resonate,” Uchitelle said. “They really do.”