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Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.

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Martin Luther King was also an outspoken advocate for Soviet Jewry. While receiving the American Civil Liberties Medallion from the American Jewish Committee on May 20, 1965, he declared that “people all over the world should be engaging in mass action to protest anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union,” and he sent a strong message of support to the huge Soviet Jewry rally held at Madison Square Garden on June 3, 1965.


Presented with the United Synagogue of America’s special Solomon Schechter Award on November 20, 1963, he proclaimed: “I can’t stand idly by, even though I happen to live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro, and not be concerned about what happens to the Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them happens to me and you, and we must be concerned.”Singer-011615-MLK

In a powerful letter published in The New York Times on January 16, 1965, King wrote:

I should like to add my voice to the list of distinguished Americans of all faiths who have called the injustices perpetrated against the Jewish community in the Soviet Union to the attention of the world…. The anti-Jewish tone of the economic trials must cease. The free functioning of synagogues should be permitted. There should be no interference with the performance of sacred rites. The religious and cultural freedom of this old Jewish community should be re-established. In the name of humanity, I urge that the Soviet Government end all the discriminatory measures against its Jewish community. I will not remain silent in the face of injustice.

King devoted substantial resources to strengthening strained ties between black Americans and American Jews, whom he recognized as being in the vanguard of the American civil rights movement. The NAACP had been founded by Jews; Jewish attorneys helped to win the major civil rights cases; Jews were at the forefront of civil rights marches and demonstrations; and it was no coincidence that Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were murdered by the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan, were Jewish, as were an estimated two-thirds of those working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign to register African-Americans to vote.

As King noted, “It has been impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom, it has been so great.”

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In March 1959, returning from a visit to India, King took a route through Egypt and Jordan and visited Jerusalem, then under Jordanian sovereignty, but the Jordanian government refused his request to enter the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

Yearning to visit Israel, he devised a plan to facilitate his desire not only to visit the Holy Land but also to help inspire a peace movement between Israel and its neighbors. Toward that end, in November 1966 he dispatched his assistant, Andrew Young, to serve as his “advance man” in Israel and to discuss a visit by King with the Israeli authorities.

In early May 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol formally invited King to Israel, an invitation reflecting years of efforts by Jewish groups, including some within Israel’s government, to host him in the Jewish state and to honor his commitment to Israel.

In a May 9, 1967 response to Eshkol, King responded: “I take this means to express my deep appreciation to you for the invitation you extended me to come to your wonderful country. I am certainly looking forward to the trip with great enthusiasm. As I have spoken around the country, I have been gratified at the response I have received regarding the Pilgrimage…. I feel that it will be a very meaningful and memorable experience for each participant….”


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].