A Father's fight for freedom


PITTSFIELD -- Avi Dres ner was in the fourth grade when he was asked to do a book report on Dr. Martin Luther King.

Flipping through the pages of the book, Dresner came to an image that startled him. There was a picture of King standing with his father.

"There's my dad," Dresner remembers saying.

Dresner's father, Rabbi Israel S. Dresner, marched with King in the early 1960s as a member of the Freedom Riders, who opposed segregation in the South.

A personal friend of King's, Rabbi Dresner also traveled to the nation's capital with King to attend the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. He was on the dais when King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

On Tuesday, the day before ceremonies were held to mark the 50th anniversary of that event, Rabbi Dresner, now 84, was one of the several surviving members of King's inner circle that were invited to Washington to meet President Barack Obama at a reception at the White House.

Rabbi Dresner, who lives in New Jersey, was allowed to bring a guest, and he chose his son, a personal trainer and radio talk show host who lives in Pittsfield.

"I think he wanted to share it with me," Avi Dresner said. "After the births of my children and my wedding it's right up there with the momentous moments of my life."

Avi Dresner almost didn't get a chance to meet the President. When father and son arrived at the White House, Avi said only his father was told that he could go into the room where Obama was waiting.

"It was obviously deflating to say the least," Avi said. "But I bore it in good stride. I was totally prepared not to see him."

But a few minutes later his father came out of the reception area, and said he had spoken to someone inside who told him that guests could come in.

"It was like getting a call from the governor at the 11th hour," Avi said. "It's a good thing I stayed in the same room."

When his father reached the president, Obama said he had read his file and knew exactly who he was.

When it was Avi's turn, he thanked the president for honoring his father, and told him the occasion was almost as cool as when Rabbi Dresner app eared on the Oprah Winfrey show.

"He smiled," Avi, said, referring to Obama.

Rabbi Dresner, who spoke at Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield in 2012, was known for his activism. In 1964, he was among 17 rabbis who were arrested on a single day in Florida after King asked him to organize clergymen to demonstrate against segregated sites in St. Augustine. He has been called "the most arrested rabbi in America."

Avi wasn't born until the year after King was assassinated in 1968, so he wasn't familiar with his father's contemporaries in the Civil Rights movement. But on Tuesday, Avi said he met several other members of King's inner circle who attended the reception, shaking hands with the Rev. Joseph Lowery, and Congressman John Lewis, who both spoke at Wednesday's 50th anniversary ceremony of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial.

"These people are icons, living legends," Avi said. "Walking among them I can't believe they're still here. It was like talking to George Washington."

Rabbi Dresner has met three other presidents, but was honored to meet Obama.

"This is like a 50-year victory lap for him," Avi said. "It means the world to him."


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