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Martin Luther King’s Relationship with Jews Detailed in a New Book

January 11, 2000
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To honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., schoolchildren all over the country are learning about his fight to win civil rights for black Americans through nonviolent protest. They are learning about the marches he led, the people he rallied and the stirring speeches he gave.

As students prepare to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17, Rabbi Marc Schneier also wants them to learn about the close relationships King had with Jews in his inner circle of advisers, the rabbis who participated in making the civil rights revolution a success and the sense of common cause that King felt with Jewish concerns such as the oppression of Soviet Jewry.

Schneier, a modern Orthodox rabbi in New York, is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and of the New York Board of Rabbis.

His new book, “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and The Jewish Community,” details relationships between King and the Jews and provides information that was, until now, little known beyond experts in the field and the players themselves. It examines the complicated, sometimes ambivalent connection between the two groups.

Some today believe that in the 1950s and 1960s, Jews universally supported the idea that black Americans should enjoy the same rights as white Americans – – that it was a halcyon era in black-Jewish relations, and only the emergence of anti-Semitic black nationalists poisoned the atmosphere, say experts in the field.

“That’s rosy-eyed nonsense,” said Arthur Magida, author of “Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and his Nation” and the editor of Schneier’s book.

“We love to romanticize this particular past and say we all marched hand and hand together, we were all beaten arm in arm together,” he said. “Some of us were and some of us weren’t. Most of us stayed home and were cowards in our own fashion.”

Questions remain about the realistic possibilities of resurrecting some sense of fate between Jews and blacks based on what happened 30 and 40 years ago.

But there is value in recalling what was, Magida said.

“To revisit these episodes is an important reminder that we once had among us a man whose yearning for freedom transcended the color of his own skin.”

Among the stories related to King and the civil rights movement found in Schneier’s new book:

King repeatedly used the Jewish experience as a model of success over oppression. He respected and admired values taught by Judaism and, as a deeply religious man, felt inspired by the Torah itself. He was sure that an alliance between blacks and Jews was fundamental to progress in civil rights. King felt a sense of kinship with the Jewish people and welcomed — even expected – – Jewish support and felt let down when it was not forthcoming.

Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was forced by his members to withdraw an invitation to King to speak at the group’s 1959 convention in Miami.

Most Southern Jews, concerned about their own vulnerability and comfort, preferred the status quo to standing up on behalf of the Negro cause and resisted the civil rights effort. Those rabbis who did get involved were primarily from the Reform movement in the northern states; later involvement came from Conservative Jews and essentially none from the Orthodox.

The Jews who were professionally involved in dismantling racial discrimination, like one of King’s closest aides, Stanley Levison, were generally secular rather than religious.

King argued to the Southern Baptist Convention against proselytizing Jews.

A Jewish woman, Esther Brown, in Topeka, Kan., instigated the lawsuit Brown vs. Board of Education. That 1954 Supreme Court decision put an end to legally mandated racially segregated schools. Though the plaintiff named was a different person with the same surname, a black man named Oliver Brown, the whole effort began because Esther Brown resented the fact that her housekeeper’s children were receiving an inferior education. She persevered though harassment and threats, her husband losing his job and a cross being burned on their lawn.

The Reform movement urged its members to get involved with the Freedom Rides, which began in 1961 in an effort to integrate Southern transportation and bus stations. Consequently, nearly two-thirds of all white Freedom Ride participants were Jewish.

Among the group of clergymen known as the Tallahassee 10, arrested in that Florida city in 1961 for protesting segregation, were two Reform rabbis from New Jersey. One of them, Rabbi Israel Dresner, had a close personal relationship with King until his assassination.

Rev. James Bevel, a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Selma, Ala., liked to wear a yarmulka because it expressed his affection for the Hebrew prophets and also helped him stay out of jail, since “Mississippi sheriffs were so mystified by the sight of a Negro preacher in a `Jewish beanie’ they preferred to let him alone.” He wore one at the press conference announcing King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., which prompted hundreds of marchers to wear what they called “freedom caps.”

King met Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for the first time at a conference on religion and race in 1963 and became close, with King calling Heschel “my rabbi.” They appeared together many times, most famously when Heschel joined the march from Selma to Montgomery. In 1968, King spoke at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly convention. When he entered the hall, he was greeted by 1,000 rabbis singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew. King was planning to join the Heschel family for a Passover seder that year, but was assassinated before he could.

Schneier believes that these stories can improve black-Jewish relations in a meaningful way.

He obtained a $25,000 grant to distribute thousands of copies of the book to leading blacks and Jews. The book is being sent to heads of Jewish federations, community relations councils, board members of all the movement-affiliated rabbinical organizations, and to local boards of rabbis.

“The extent of the Jewish community’s very superficial knowledge of King’s relationship with the Jewish community is that Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with him,” Schneier said. “This book sheds new light. I want it to be used as a way for the Jewish community to be able to have a more meaningful and factual commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday.”

In February, in connection with Black History Month, he will distribute the book to leaders of black organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the congressional black delegation and the United Negro College Fund.

“The African American community has no clue as to Dr. King’s involvement with the Jewish community, the State of Israel, the plight of Soviet Jews, his many references to the Holocaust, and his condemnation of anti-Semitism, especially when the virus erupted among African Americans,” Schneier said.

“I want them to follow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s path of commitment to Jewish concerns.”

But is it possible for what took place more than three decades ago to influence black-Jewish relations today, a time when the sense of common ground has all but disappeared?

In King’s era, much was shared by Jews and blacks; both were ethnic minorities often living in dense urban centers.

Jews were then a persecuted minority — if not by law, then in American practice, denied entry into jobs, schools, neighborhoods and clubs. Today, in the space of a single generation, Jews have completely “made it” in America.

But if laws have changed, as a result of the civil rights movement, to allow blacks entry into every institution, a tangled web of other factors — their own cultural values, larger economic forces and racial biases against them – – have led to far less complete success in American society.

Today, in an era when few Jews live alongside blacks and a kind of economic segregation separates the two communities, “it’s harder to figure out the common ground that blacks and Jews share,” said Jonathan Kaufman, staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of “Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America.”

Still, Kaufman believes that there should be a sense of mutual concern between the two groups, and that the Jewish community should more seriously teach its children about civil rights.

The relationship between King and Heschel is a good place to start, he believes. He will be teaching about it to his own daughter’s second-grade Hebrew school class.

“Thirty years ago there was a sense of possibility and optimism and it was easier to build alliances. Now everyone is polarized — rich and poor, black and white,” Kaufman said.

Today, he said, “before you have black-Jewish relations, you have to have black-Jewish relationships.”

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