Rabbi Israel S. Dresner was gripped with fear when an angry mob surrounded the house where he'd gone to meet the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was 1962, and Dresner was with King in Albany, Ga., to organize and demonstrate against civil rights abuses aimed at blacks there.
Dresner and King were at the home of a local civil rights leader, Dr. W.G. Anderson, in the segregated town for a meeting with other activists.
Members of the "White Citizens Council" -- little more than a middle-class Ku Klux Klan, Dresner said -- got wind of the meeting, and more than 100 people later surrounded the house, chanting, marching and holding signs that read, "Outside Agitators Go Home!"
"I was really scared that they were going to torch the house," Dresner said.
"Dr. King was cool as a cucumber. He'd obviously gone through this a hundred times already."
Dresner, now 81, went on to fight other battles during the "Freedom Summers" of the 1960s, enduring arrests and jailing, threats and verbal abuse, all the while developing a close friendship with King.
He was among the famous preacher's inner circle in demonstrations in Albany, as well as in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, and St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964.
The rabbi keeps as a relic of that tumultuous time a letter dictated by King in which the civil rights leader asked him for help in a particularly tough fight against Jim Crow segregation laws in St. Augustine.
"He had a wonderful sense of humor and he never had his nose in the air -- even after he won the Nobel Prize," said Dresner, now rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Kivah in Wayne. "I guess in that sense, he was truly modest and humble."
Dresner, who had known President John F. Kennedy, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and President Lyndon B. Johnson, thinks of King as "the greatest single person I have ever met."
Last month, Dresner spoke to filmmaker Jimmie Richardson for his documentary "Return of a King" about King's visit to Paterson, N.J., a little more than a week before he was assassinated. Richardson said the anecdotes and detail Dresner provided about King have been invaluable.
"I'm just elated by the fact that I have the opportunity to talk to someone who actually knew Dr. King," Richardson said.
On that night in Georgia, the crowd eventually left after a few hours, and King and Dresner shared a late-night talk. King had just attended his first Passover Seder, where he had observed celebrants reading from the Haggadah, a sacred text that is recited at Passover.
"The first words Dr. King remembers in the story are, 'We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt,'" Dresner said.
King told him that just as Jews recognize that they were once enslaved, American blacks needed not to be ashamed of what their ancestors endured, Dresner recounted.
"'We Negroes have to teach our kids to remember the more than three centuries of slavery that we suffered,'" Dresner recalled King saying. "'Jews are not ashamed of mentioning they were slaves.' You don't blame the victim."
Dresner was raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn. His parents were from Eastern Europe; most of his father's family had been murdered during the Holocaust.
Dresner said that learning as a young man of Holocaust atrocities committed during the war made him acutely "conscious of what racism could lead to." It was one of the things that inspired him to become active in civil rights.
King twice spoke at Dresner's synagogue, Temple Sha'arey Shalom in Springfield. He treasures the letter King dictated from his St. Augustine jail cell. Addressing him by his nickname, "Sy," King appealed for him to bring a contingent of rabbis to Florida to demonstrate against civil rights abuses.
"This is the most lawless community in which we have ever worked," King wrote. "I am very interested in having a task force from the Reform movement to come to St. Augustine and witness with us for self-respect and human decency."
Dresner obliged, bringing 16 rabbis with him to St. Augustine, where they all were arrested after protesting outside a segregated hotel.
Dresner first met King in 1962 in Albany's jail, where King had been incarcerated for civil disobedience. King's cellmate was the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, his close friend and the vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"In the cell next to theirs were about 10 students, college-age," Dresner said. "Dr. King tapped on the wall and the students began to sing very loudly." They sang freedom songs, specifically the Negro spiritual "Oh, Freedom," from which Dresner sang a few verses while telling the story.
"Dr. King said to us, 'I didn't want the jailers to hear our conversation.'"
King spoke to Dresner and the Rev. Ralph Lord Roy, a white Methodist minister, about bringing clergy to Albany in the summer of 1962 to be arrested in demonstrations.
The pair returned to the North and brought back 65 priests and 10 rabbis, all of whom were later arrested in one of the largest mass arrests of clergy in U.S. history, Dresner said.
Dresner was away on sabbatical in Israel in April 1968 when he learned King had been shot to death as he stood on the balcony of a Memphis hotel. Reporters from the Israeli Broadcasting System called him at 3 a.m. with the news, and then asked for an interview. Weeks later, he was the keynote speaker at a memorial service for King at Hebrew University.
Looking back on his time as a civil rights advocate, Dresner said he's just glad to have played what he said was a small role in history.
"God tells us that we are supposed to do good works, not just to depend on faith to change history. We're supposed to work at it -- and Dr. King and the freedom movement changed American history," the rabbi said.
"And I played a teeny little part in it, and I'm very proud of that. While we still have a long way to go in America, we've come a long way."
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