Martin Luther King Jr. Day

A Bissel of This and That

(Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be observed this year on January 18, 2021. The following excerpts come directly from an article written by Peter Dreier, titled “Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and American Jews” featured on the “Los Angeles Review of Books” website on January 18, 2020. The full article can be found here.)

Reverend King often expressed his appreciation for the close affinity between the black and Jewish communities. In 1958, speaking at a meeting of the American Jewish Congress, King said: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.” In 1964, King said: “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom — it has been so great.”

Much has been made of Jews’ longstanding support for the black freedom movement. But the black-Jewish alliance has been a two-way street. For example, during the 1930s and ’40s, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, and other prominent black intellectuals spoke out against the rise of Nazism in Europe and the United States’s reluctance to admit Jewish refugees seeking to escape from fascism. During the Holocaust, when most elite white universities in the United States refused to provide jobs for Jewish professors fleeing persecution in Europe, historically black colleges offered refuge, with schools like Howard University, Atlanta University, and Tougaloo College, among others, employing at least 53 Jewish scholars. Most recently, black leaders in New York City, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and other cities have demonstrated their solidarity with the Jewish community in response to the recent upsurge of hatred against Jews. In New Jersey, where race-based and antisemitic hate crimes have more than doubled since 2016, the ADL and the NAACP have joined forces to educate politicians and the public about prejudice to “allow our communities to lock arms and stand together against bigotry and those who seek to distract and divide us.”

Blacks and Jews have expressed their shared goals in different ways, on the front lines of the protest movement for civil rights and in the voting booth. On the protest front, many Americans are familiar with the iconic photograph of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1965 march for voting rights. Heschel later wrote: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” For his part, King called Heschel “my rabbi,” and the two often shared political and theological ideas.

In January 1963, Heschel delivered a speech (and King gave the closing speech) at a meeting National Conference on Religion and Race sponsored by the National Council of the Churches, the Synagogue Council of America, and the National Catholic Welfare Conference. Heschel began his remarks by linking biblical history to contemporary struggles:

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’s words were, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.’ While Pharaoh retorted: ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’ The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

Rabbis were involved in the Freedom Rides, the lunch counter sit-ins, local efforts to challenge racial discrimination in housing and integrate schools, and the 1963 March on Washington, where Rabbi Uri Miller gave the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke prior to King’s “I Have a Dream” oration. In 1964, 16 rabbis joined the protest campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, a hotbed of segregationist resistance. All of them were arrested with King for engaging in a nonviolent demonstration at the segregated Monson Motor Lodge. At least 25 rabbis besides Heschel participated in the Selma march the next year. Heschel also led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the agency’s failure to protect the civil rights demonstrators from racist thugs and the Alabama state police.

But it wasn’t just rabbis who were on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. More than any other white religious or ethnic group, American Jews played a significant role in many different aspects of the freedom struggle. Jewish activists represented a disproportionate number of the whites who were involved in the struggle. They were active not only in the NAACP but also in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. From his earliest days as the leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King’s closest advisor was Stanley Levison, who helped him write speeches, raise funds, organize events, and strategize. Kivie Kaplan, a vice chairman of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), served as the NAACP’s president from 1966 to 1975.

Although Jews made up less than three percent of the nation’s population, they made up at least half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 — especially Jewish women like Heather Booth and Vivian Rothstein, as well as future Congressman Barney Frank, who volunteered to register voters under dangerous conditions. The two architects of that effort were Allard Lowenstein (a Jew) and Bob Moses (an African American). That summer, two young Jewish volunteers from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, along with a young black Mississippian, James Chaney, were mur­dered in Neshoba County by Klansmen, their bodies dumped in a secret grave. Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland was severely beaten in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he’d traveled to participate in the voting rights effort. Dr. Edward Sachar, who volunteered his medical services to the freedom marchers, nearly lost his life when his automobile was forced off a Mississippi back road by local segregationists.

The Jewish and black communities have continued to be allies in the struggle for a more inclusive society. In the summer of 2015, Jews were actively involved in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, an historic 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, DC, carrying a Torah the entire way. They marched to advance a national agenda that protects the right of every American, especially black Americans, to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. The Jewish community — through the work of both individual activists and organizations — has persisted in its support for these goals.

On Rosh Hashanah in 2017, Reverend William Barber II, perhaps the most influential civil rights leader since Reverend King, spoke at the IKAR synagogue in Los Angeles. “I have come here to hear the blowing of the shofar,” said the North Carolina minister who is leading a new Poor People’s campaign, “and to call us all to become shofars for a new year and a new reality until we are one nation under God for liberty and justice for all.”

At this time of growing white supremacy and bigotry — including attacks on immigrants, African Americans, Jews, and other groups — we need to heed Dr. King’s words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

(Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (2012). He is co-editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism — American Style, published in January by The New Press.)