Coretta Scott King joined representatives of the World Jewish Congress this week to mark what would have been her late husband’s 65th birthday.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, Martin Luther King Jr. was remembered as a champion of rights for all people, not just his own.
King was remembered for speaking out often on behalf of Jews who were trapped in the former Soviet Union and against anti-Semitism wherever it was found, even among members of the black community.
His widow and Evelyn Sommer, chairman of the American section of the WJC, both recalled that just 10 days before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, King addressed the members of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly at their annual convention, held that year in New York.
“We cannot be victims of the notion that you can substitute one tyranny for another,” he told the assembled rabbis, who included his friend Abraham Joshua Heschel. “For the black man to struggle for equality and then turn around and be anti-Semitic is not only an irrational course, but an immoral course.”
Mrs. King expanded on the theme in her remarks this week. “Anti-Semitism is as vile and contemptible as racism. Anyone who supports it, including African Americans, does a disservice to his people, his country and his God,” said King.
“Martin said it on many occasions, not just when he was speaking to the Rabbinical Assembly.”
WJC presented Mrs. King with a proclamation titled “His Dream is Ours.”
It stated: “Dr. King demonstrated a deep sensitivity for Jewish concerns and tradition. And Jews had a profound appreciation for Dr. King’s moral leadership, which was consonant with the teachings of our tradition.
“Who can forget the scene of Jews marching arm in arm with Dr. King and his associates, or the sacrifices made by Jews in the struggle for civil rights?” it said.
After accepting the proclamation, Mrs. King said, “None of the other recognitions I have received on his behalf has been more significant or moving than your recognizing his birthday as your own holiday.
“This is a powerful testament to the solidarity we share in the struggle for human rights,” said his widow, who has worked to spread King’s teachings of non-violent struggle for civil rights since his murder.
In presenting the proclamation, Rabbi Marc Schneier, chairman of WJC’s Intergroup Relations Committee, noted that the observance of King’s birthday next Monday falls this year on the same day as Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish holiday celebrating trees.
“Dr. King planted seeds that bore fruit not only in our generation, but (will continue to) in generations to come,” said Schneier.
According to Sommer, the various sections of WJC around the globe, including Europe, Africa and Asia, will all be marking the day as a communal remembrance.
In addition, WJC has joined with the Israeli government and the United Negro College Fund in launching a program in which students from historically black colleges go to study at Israeli universities for a semester.
The first group of 14 students recently returned from the fall term, and a second group will be leaving soon, said Elan Steinberg, executive director of WJC, in an interview.
They also expect to begin implementing plans for faculty exchanges between historically black American universities and Israeli institutions, he said.