March on Washington 1987



“Let My People Go!”
“(A)s if called by an ancient shofar, the huge crowds who traveled to the capital from almost every state in the union were there to demonstrate for the redemption of Soviety Jewry, but also to display the formidable power of organized American Jewry to make its voice heard.” – Henry J. Feingold, author of Silent No More…

The Goal

On Sunday, December 6, 1987, the eve of the Washington, D.C. Summit between Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, an estimated 250,000 people demonstrated on the National Mall in an unprecedented display of solidarity for Soviet Jewry. The mass mobilization, organized by a broad-based coalition led by National Conference for Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and national agencies, brought activists from across the United States to demand that Gorbachev extend his policy of glasnost to Soviet Jews by putting an end to their forced assimilation and allowing their emigration from the USSR.

The enormous rally showed “clearly where the real strength of American Jewish organizations existed,” wrote historian Henry J. Feingold (author of Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, The American Jewish Effort, 1967-1989). It was “not in negotiating with sovereign powers that gave no assurance that they would implement what might be agreed to. The giant Washington rally of 6 December 1987 demonstrated that public relations techniques to focus attention on the plight of Soviet Jewry had become a formidable skill developed by the American Soviet Jewry movement.”

A Massive Crowd

The Rally was timed to take place 24 hours before Gorbachev was to arrive in Washington for a two-day summit conference on disarmament. It was preceded by several events on the preceding Friday, including the giving of testimony by five refuseniks to the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a news conference, a Congressional prayer service, and a fast vigil.

Though the Rally’s main organizers – NCSJ, AJC and NJCRAC – had estimated no more than 150,000 would attend the demonstration, they were totally taken by surprise by the overwhelming response of 250,000 people representing 300 Jewish Federations, Community Councils, synagogues, youth groups and other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations descended upon the nation’s capitol that weekend and poured onto the Mall on Sunday morning, despite the freezing winter temperatures. The show of solidarity was “brilliantly orchestrated,” noted historian Feingold, “the largest, best-organized protest rally in American Jewish history.”

The massive mobilization ensured President Reagan’s intention to keep human rights on the summit agenda. At the Rally itself, George Bush, Sr., then Republican presidential candidate, declared, “I will not be satisfied until the promise of Helsinki is a reality.”

A shofar was sounded. Pearl Bailey sang “Let My People Go”. Refuseniks recently released from Soviet prison addressed the crowds, including Felix Abramovich, Yosef Begun, Yuli Edelshtein, Misha and Ilana Kholmyansky, Ida Nudel, and Natan Sharansky. And Elie Wiesel invoked the haunting memory of the Holocaust when he recalled how millions of Jews could have been saved in World War II, if people had protested as they now did in defense of Soviet Jewry. But during the Holocaust, “too many were silent then. We are not silent today.”

It was noted that during the summit, Gorbachev was not pleased with Reagan’s constant reminder of the emigration issue and of the quarter-million Americans who had rallied in support of Soviet Jewry over the weekend. The head of the USSR would return to his country and in subsequent months, prepare for the opening of Soviet borders for immigration to Israel. Freedom Sunday thus marked a turning point in the struggle that led to the releasing of more than one million Jews over subsequent years.

For more stories about the refuseniks and émigrés whose struggles led them out of the Soviet Union, visit the HIAS myStory web site.