A Thank You Letter From Martin Luther King Jr.

USC Digital Library

Three months after the start of the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955, the members of the Emma Lazarus Jewish Women’s Clubs of Los Angeles made a $25 donation to the Montgomery Improvement Association. While charitable giving was a large part of the organization’s mission, what is notable is the thank-you letter they received for their gift. It is signed by Martin Luther King Jr., whose activism had just begun to hold national attention. Considering that King was focusing much of his efforts at a local level at this time—his famous “I Have a Dream” speech was still seven years off—it is incredibly likely that this signature is authentic. The Emmas’ contribution to a cause that was far from their local interests in Southern California speaks to their dedication to progressive politics and to promoting what they believed was just. In these politically charged times, some might fight strength in such histories of solidarity and cross-community organizing. 

Though the history of the Jewish community’s social presence in Los Angeles is well documented, as is the activism of the larger Jewish community during the civil rights movement, the activism of Los Angeles Jewish women in the civil rights movement is perhaps lesser known. Luckily, the Emma Lazarus Jewish Women’s Clubs of Los Angeles kept extensive records of its activism and cross-cultural involvement. The Los Angeles organization, a local chapter of the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs that was itself an offshoot of the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order of the International Workers Order, stayed true to its parent organizations’ radical principles and had its finger on the pulse of the progressive movement. 

This receipt and thank-you letter were included in the group’s organizational records, which are now part of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research. While there is no accession documentation for the collection, the library believes that the Los Angeles clubs donated the records around 1981. The Southern California Library is a community library and archive in South Los Angeles that “documents and makes accessible histories of struggles that challenge racism and other systems of oppression so we can all imagine and sustain possibilities for freedom.” The records of the local Emma Lazarus chapter have been fully digitized thanks to generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is available through the USC Digital Library, and the physical collection is available for browsing by appointment at the Southern California Library. 

Further Reading

Antler, J. Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs. In The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/emma-lazarus-federation-of-jewish-womens-clubs.

Bernstein, S. (2010). Bridges of Reform : Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Oxford University Press.

Bernstein, S. (2011). Interracial Activism in the Los Angeles Community Service Organization: Linking the World War II and Civil Rights Eras. Pacific Historical Review, 80(2), 231–267. https://doi.org/10.1525/phr.2011.80.2.231

Leonard, D. J. (2002). “No jews and no coloreds are welcome in this town”: Constructing coalitions in post /war los angeles (Order No. 3082282). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304697208). Retrieved from http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy2.usc.edu/docview/304697208?accountid=14749.

The Museum of the Jewish People. The Jewish community of Los Angeles. Beit Hatfutsot Databases.  https://dbs.bh.org.il/place/los-angeles.

Robertson, T. (2002). Provenance. In Administrative Information, Register of the Emma Lazarus Jewish Women’s Clubs of Los Angeles Records, 1945-1980 (pp. 2). Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research.