Posted by: Danielle Freni, Senior Communications Associate on 1/17/2008 12:50:00 PM
Monday is observed as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day throughout the United States in honor of his birthday (January 15, 1929).
While most famously associated with African-American history and the American Civil Rights movement, Dr. King is also lauded by the American Jewish community as an outspoken proponent of Israel and Jewish civil rights. Just two weeks before his murder in 1968, Dr. King delivered a speech
in which he said, "peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity."
Believing all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, to be toxic for society, Dr. King led many civil rights marches including the most famous, the 1963 March on Washington. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he was accompanied by 250,000 supporters, a quarter of them white, many of them Jewish.
The Jews were a significant part of the Civil Rights Movement for obvious reasons. Both Jews and blacks share a tragic and triumphant history, marred by periods of enslavement, persecution and mass murder. Our stories are intertwined.
Some of the most famous Jews to support the Civil Rights Movement were Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Kivie Kaplan, president of the NAACP from 1966-1975. Just a few years ago, a Mississippi jury convicted a Ku Klux Klan member in the 1964 killings of two Jewish college students, 20-year-old Andrew Goodman and 24-year-old Michael Schwerner, who had traveled south from New York to help register black voters. As a young college student, Queens College Hillel Executive Director Moshe Shur traveled to Memphis to register voters where he met Dr. King.
Indeed for every legendary tale of heroism, there are many more stories of lesser-known individuals who contributed to the struggle. "From Swastika to Jim Crow"
tells one such story. Set in the 1930s, it documents the journey on which German-Jewish professors and scholars embarked when Hitler forced them out of their positions at German universities and colleges. About 1,200 of these academics fled Europe for the United States where they arrived to find America's segregated south in the throes of its own racial turmoil.
Fifty-one of these Jewish immigrants, excluded from mainstream campuses, would find employment at black colleges and universities. It was thought that Jews and blacks could bond over their shared ongoing experiences with extreme racism and oppression.
Indeed, there are many historical moments in which Jews and blacks joined hands (often literally) in that fight. In 1948, many years before the Civil Rights Movement began, Hillel defied social norms of the time to host an "Interracial Conference" in Florida. There, blacks and Jews met to discuss a variety of issues from differing perspectives. At that time, the idea of blacks and whites holding discussion in a room together was unheard of, particularly in the deep South.
But in the wake of the Holocaust, tens of thousands of Jews would support Dr. King and his mission, all bearing witness to the injustice of segregation and stifled civil liberties.
Like their ancestors before them, Jewish Americans forged ahead in the direction of freedom, led by a man who declared, "I've been to the mountaintop. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
Dr. King's powerful speech
, delivered the night before he died, and the social climate of the 1960s seem to mirror the journey of Moses and the Israelites. Retold every year at Passover, the Exodus is the Jews' triumph over bondage, our freedom story.
Today, Jews and blacks continue to fight against widespread stereotypes and racism. The issue will not resolve itself in our lifetime.
Dr. King preached that he had been to the mountaintop, looked over and seen the Promised Land.
We remember that for an entire generation of Israelites, the Promised Land was never reached. For Dr. King, segregation laws were not eradicated. For six million European Jews, Hitler's reign never ended. Yet, today, we look to the mountaintop.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day may be largely considered a "black holiday," but it is also a Jewish holiday. On Monday, consider visiting a Holocaust Memorial exhibit or museum in your city
in honor of Dr. King. You may also want to plan a future trip to the Civil Rights Museum
in Memphis, TN, or read this text study
on Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
I also invite you to share your comments and personal stories about Jewish-black relations below. Watch the video of Dr. King's last speech.
RE: "I've been to the mountaintop..."
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