Temple Beth-El's executive director Stuart Botwinick is pictured Tuesday with...

Temple Beth-El's executive director Stuart Botwinick is pictured Tuesday with Jordana Levine, a board trustee, at the Great Neck house of worship. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Nearly 56 years ago, civil rights giant Martin Luther King Jr. stood before 1,200 people at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck to deliver a speech about the existence of what he called "two Americas" while denouncing violence.

Now the temple has invited state Attorney General Letitia James, the first woman and Black person elected to that role in New York, to commemorate his words with a speech of her own before the congregation at 7 p.m. Friday.

King's speech in March 1967 included comments about the "unjust" war in Vietnam and spoke of coming together to fight for equality in a country he saw as divided.

“One is a beautiful America, where there is the milk of opportunity and the honey of equality,” King told the audience, according to a newspaper story the Great Neck Record published at the time.

King added: “There is another America where the daily ugliness has transformed the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

James told Newsday in a statement that she's honored to be part of the temple's commemoration of King's speech and "to recognize the long history of partnership between the Black and Jewish communities."

She added: “We have been unified by our common struggle against hate and oppression, and together, we share a special responsibility to combat racism and antisemitism of any and every kind."

Roger Tilles, a past president of the temple and Long Island's representative on the state's Board of Regents, heard King speak that day after coming home from his junior year at Amherst College in Massachusetts to join others in the jammed auditorium.

“At the time I was moved by the whole civil rights movement and when I went to college it was certainly at the forefront of our minds," Tilles, 76, told Newsday on Tuesday.

Tilles' father Gilbert was president of the temple at the time of King's visit.

The educator said he has made a point of working since then to bring prominent speakers to the temple to voice their stories about King's influence, including late civil rights leader John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia, and influential Harlem pastor the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III — who died last year.

Stuart Botwinick, the reform synagogue's executive director, said in an interview ahead of Friday's commemorative event that Temple Beth-El's leaders were major supporters of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Jews have a special responsibility to hold up and support those who are held down, and we continue till this day to look towards equality and civil rights, do our part to lift people up," said Botwinick, 48.

Jordana Levine, who sits on the temple’s board of trustees, said Friday’s event is vitally important to ensure that today's young people are invested in such causes.

“We want to give a space for those conversations and come together around doing acts of service,” added Levine, 50. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to continue that.”

Nearly 56 years ago, civil rights giant Martin Luther King Jr. stood before 1,200 people at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck to deliver a speech about the existence of what he called "two Americas" while denouncing violence.

Now the temple has invited state Attorney General Letitia James, the first woman and Black person elected to that role in New York, to commemorate his words with a speech of her own before the congregation at 7 p.m. Friday.

King's speech in March 1967 included comments about the "unjust" war in Vietnam and spoke of coming together to fight for equality in a country he saw as divided.

“One is a beautiful America, where there is the milk of opportunity and the honey of equality,” King told the audience, according to a newspaper story the Great Neck Record published at the time.

King added: “There is another America where the daily ugliness has transformed the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

James told Newsday in a statement that she's honored to be part of the temple's commemoration of King's speech and "to recognize the long history of partnership between the Black and Jewish communities."

She added: “We have been unified by our common struggle against hate and oppression, and together, we share a special responsibility to combat racism and antisemitism of any and every kind."

Roger Tilles, a past president of the temple and Long Island's representative on the state's Board of Regents, heard King speak that day after coming home from his junior year at Amherst College in Massachusetts to join others in the jammed auditorium.

“At the time I was moved by the whole civil rights movement and when I went to college it was certainly at the forefront of our minds," Tilles, 76, told Newsday on Tuesday.

Tilles' father Gilbert was president of the temple at the time of King's visit.

The educator said he has made a point of working since then to bring prominent speakers to the temple to voice their stories about King's influence, including late civil rights leader John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia, and influential Harlem pastor the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III — who died last year.

Stuart Botwinick, the reform synagogue's executive director, said in an interview ahead of Friday's commemorative event that Temple Beth-El's leaders were major supporters of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Jews have a special responsibility to hold up and support those who are held down, and we continue till this day to look towards equality and civil rights, do our part to lift people up," said Botwinick, 48.

Jordana Levine, who sits on the temple’s board of trustees, said Friday’s event is vitally important to ensure that today's young people are invested in such causes.

“We want to give a space for those conversations and come together around doing acts of service,” added Levine, 50. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to continue that.”

MLK's Legacy

  • The civil rights icon's Great Neck speech came about a year before his assassination on April 4, 1968, while he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers' strike. He was 39 years old when he died.
  • Many Americans will come together to celebrate his life and message Monday during a national holiday in his honor.

Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Latest videos