Remembering & Looking Forward: Martin Luther King Day 2015
By Rabbi Morris Allen
When we hear the name Martin Luther King Jr., our mind immediately recalls his brilliant and unmatched powers of oratory that yielded the immortal, “I Have A Dream” speech; certainly as important to our national heritage as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or the stunning inaugural talks of FDR.
King’s greatness is such that whenever we think of the disorder and turmoil of the sixties, we mark his dedication to the cause of non-violent demonstration for civil rights. In his peaceful yet unrelenting use of sit-ins, marches and prayer he subjected himself to terrible dangers of brutality at the hands of the law enforcement, racist mobs and vigilantes, and malevolent folks in seats of national or state or local power who regarded his message of equal rights and opportunities to be a greater threat to their petty prejudices than the worst criminal action they would undertake.
47 years ago, when I first spoke on Parashat Va’era, I mentioned Martin Luther King in my talk—for in January 1968, the cause of civil right was central to my own family’s narrative and certainly connected to our own construction of identity as Jewish Americans. Whatever I said at that time, however, paled in great great comparison, when two months later, and only days before Martin Luther King would be assassinated, Prof Abraham Joshua Heschel (zl) said the following in introducing Dr. King to the Rabbinical Assembly convention in the Catskills. Listen to the words of Professor Heschel—March 25, 1968
“Where does God dwell in America today? Is He at home with those who are complacent, indifferent to other people’s agony, devoid of mercy? Is He not rather with the poor and the contrite in the slums?
Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to everyone of us. The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves. MLK is a voice, a vision and a way. I call upon every Jew to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and the influence of Dr. King.
In 1968, as I stood on the bimah of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Lincoln Nebraska I compared MLK to Moshe, for both were charged with leading their people to freedom. I was a 13 year old far removed from the towns and cities of the south, but raised with a keen understanding of racism and the responsibility that we as Jews had to eradicate it from our midst. Before I was born, my parents lived in Oak Ridge Tennessee where my father worked for the Atomic Energy Commission. From the time I can remember, I remember hearing the story of how much my parents wanted to get out of the south—and it centered on issues of skin color. My oldest brother’s complexion is quite dark. When he was swimming in the community pool in Oak Ridge my mother was told to remove the black boy who was swimming in the pool. My mother said, that is my son and even if it were my son’s friend we would still be swimming Sadly, my mother and siblings were ushered away from the pool. That is a core story of our family’s narrative. We were a family that was engaged with and concerned about the civil rights issues of the 50’s and 60’s.
While as a 13 year old boy I would believe that I was capable of connecting the civil rights movement of my day to the ancient story of Moshe and the Israelites, Dr. King much more eloquently understood Jewish history as a means for connecting the experience of the African American community in America. In an eloquent address delivered when he was 30 years old—in 1959—you can sense his genuine understanding of the experience of the Jew at that time and his identification with our story.
“But why is God slow in conquering the forces of evil? Why did God permit Hitler to Kill 6 million Jews? Why did God permit slavery to continue in America for 244 years? Why does God permit bloodthirsty mobs to lynch Negro men and women and drown Negro boys and Negro girls at whim? Why does God not break in and smash the evil schemes of wicked men?”
In this eloquent sermon, Dr. King concludes with what we would called nechemta—with comfort”
God does not forget his children who are victims of evil forces. He gives us the interior resources to bear our burdens and tribulations of life. When we are in the darkness of some oppressive Egypt, God is a light to our path. He imbues us with strength needed to endure the ordeals of Egypt and he gives us the courage and power to undertake the journey ahead!”
King himself understood the importance of the Black-Jewish alliance of the 1960’s without minimizing the challenges to it. In his last major address to the Jewish community, at the Rabbinical Assembly only 10 days before his assassination, King said the following to the rabbis gathered in convention.
“”I think we also have to say that the anti-Semitism which we find in the black community is almost completely an urban Northern ghetto phenomenon, virtually non-existent in the south. I think this comes into being because the Negro in the ghetto confronts the Jew in two dissimilar roles. On one hand, he confronts the Jews in the role of being his most consistent and trusted ally in the struggle for justice in the civil rights movement. More than any other ethnic group, the Jewish community has been sympathetic and has stood as an ally to the Negro in our struggle for justice. On the other hand, the Negro confronts the Jew in the ghetto as his landlord in many instances and while the Jewish storekeeper or landlord is not operating on the basis of Jewish ethics; he is operating simply as a marginal businessman, these conflicts still come into being.
So why do I tell you all of this— because the story of 47 years ago was a courageous story of communities finding commonality in spite of significant differences. It was a time when the Jewish community emerging into its own after a century of serious anti-Semitic challenges inside America was finding a voice that allowed us to be a voice for the nations, a light unto people. We saw in our story of emergence from the darkness of anti-Semitism in America an opportunity to extend a hand to those who were living through the racism of America. We understood that the story contained in Torah today, the story which we read just moments ago –if it were to mean anything, it had to mean that freedom for every individual and community was just as important. Professor Heschel in that iconic picture of the March from Selma to Montgomery, locked arm in arm with his friend Martin Luther King, understood that was a picture about us as much as it was about the African-American.
And so it is difficult to read about the new movie Selma and not be angered or concerned by the eradication of the Jewish presence from the story. It seems to be in vogue today—airbrushing out folks we don’t want to see—Orthodox Jewish newspapers did it with Angela Merkel in the Paris march and in response a wonderful picture emerged of airbrushing out all of the men in the march and leaving a picture of 3 women in the process. But in truth this airbrushing out of history is much more serious: It is made even worse because in 2015, there are many attempts to eradicate the presence of the Jew from the story of the world in all sorts of instances. A new atlas can come out and eliminate Israel from the map of the Middle East. Terror directed against a satiric magazine ends up with a murderous attack at a kosher butcher shop. A movie appears that seems to suggest that the significant role that Dr King himself understood about the Jewish community in the struggle for civil rights is easily eviscerated from a movie that speaks to that very struggle.
And yet the story is much more complex than we like to believe. In discussing the airbrushing out of the Jews from the civil rights movement and the struggles in America in 1960s, in a somewhat snide comment, Katie Rosenblatt writes in the Forward that what I have just shared is simply a “well tread recitation of a triumphalist version of black-Jewish relations presented in synagogues and summer camps, complete with mention of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Jewish involvement in the March on Washington, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma.” Perhaps she is correct, though I think her comment itself simplifies and minimizes the seriousness of the issue at hand and is actually presents a strong undercutting of her basic premise.
For in truth, that March from Selma to Montgomery was filled with busloads of Jews who came south from the north— to march and in the process to have their eyes opened and the souls touched. One woman, a Jewish woman in Chicago wrote the following letter to her family after having gone on this march in 1965; She writes;
Going to Montgomery was a little like bringing a cake to a house of mourning: it isn’t very much and you know they’ll eat even if you don’t bake. However, you feel that you’d like to do something, so you bake it, bring it rather hesitantly but bring it nevertheless, and feel better having brought it.” She writes a little later on: We were two, almost 42 years old, suburban housewives whose daily occupation focused on whether it will be hamburgers or chicken for dinner. We play tennis, we go dancing, dabble in a few civic activities. We don’t belong to CORE, SNCC, NAACP, and we don’t know the words to the freedom songs. We aren’t leaders, or even active followers of the movement in our own backyard and yet we spent sleepless nights when that UAHC bus left for Selma and we weren’t on it. Whatever it was, when that bus left for Selma, we both knew that we’d be on a plane to Montgomery that same week.”
At the end of this six-page letter describing her experiences, she says the following “We left Highland Park at 5:45 Thursday morning and pulled into Highland park one day later. And yet we had been witnesses to a moment in history We acted according to our consciences, whose still, small voices finally got through to us. We made a decision to do something.”
For the record, this women’s life was changed by this simple act of joining hands with black women and men as she and other people, white and black, Christian and Jewish marched in Montgomery. She would come back to Chicago a changed woman, and would become a major and early proponent of the cause of Soviet Jewry which for her became for her an analogous fight worth undertaking. Indeed her valiant volunteer work for Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, going back and forth to the former Soviet Union, secretly photographing refuseniks and recording their stories, smuggling goods and religious items for their use into their homes, ultimately enabled another community who was about to be written out of history to find their voice and their connection back to their people.
An alliance on Civil rights transformed a community of Jews across the ocean and behind an iron curtain.
The days of Heschel and King are long gone—but the impact of these two giant figures in American religious life needs to continually be revisited. For we alone cannot change the desire of some to write us out of history. We alone cannot change the virulent language and attacks on Zionism and Israel that now have become all too frequent on the college campus. We alone cannot live in security in Israel in isolation from the changes taking place in the Middle East. We alone cannot find joy in our lives in America knowing that too many people of color and people in poverty are treated a unfairly and with discrimination. What this weekend should remind us all, inside this shul is this—reestablishing honest alliances where are concerns are just as important to address by others as their concerns are for us to address will change the dynamic of lives for both people of color and for Jews. In his letter from the Birmingham jail King wrote “it was illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”
Today we need to find the courage to say that our voice and our work and our commitment to the cause of ensuring dignity and liberty and security for people of color in this country is demanded no less- it is what some of us have tried to live our whole lives and it is what all of us should aspire to as we move forward together. And in so doing, our own sense of isolation might indeed be addressed as well. And in so doing, two peoples will find the hope they each indeed must find.