I recall the pre-Pesach evening of April 4, 1968, as a warm one. My mother was certainly well along with holiday preparations, and my brother and I had headed out to a nearby candy store to check out the newest comic book selections, not yet knowing about the shot that had rung out in the Memphis sky. Upon returning home at around 7:30, we were greeted by the tragic news of the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Although I was only 10 years old, I was at least vaguely aware of Dr. King’s battle for civil rights. This year we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that horrible event, and some thoughts come to mind that I wish to share.
I find it serendipitous that Dr. King’s jubilee yahrzeit fell on Pesach. The holiday, of course, marks the Exodus of the Israelites. Yet, the freedom that Pesach conjures has a universal stamp; it reflects every man’s yearning for liberty. Indeed, black Americans saw the Israelite longing for freedom as emblematic of their own just battle.
For example, the abolitionist leader and erstwhile slave Frederick Douglass wrote about one song that was sung on his plantation: “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”
Yet the eradication of slavery in 1865 did not spell true freedom for blacks. With the withdrawal of federal troops from the south in 1877, a progressive erosion of black rights occurred. And after the Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 affirmed that “separate but equal” was a Constitutionally-valid social system, 70 years of segregation ensued. Racist laws were backed by terror, and in many locales, lynching was an accepted way to engender compliance and invoke fear.
The Jewish people in general played a very positive role in the battle for equal rights for blacks. Jews helped found and fund the NACCP and, according to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, over 2,000 black schools were substantively funded by Julius Rosenwald, a prominent Jewish philanthropist.
In the battle for civil rights that consumed the 1950s and 1960s, Jews stood alongside Dr. King. A famous March 1965 Alabama photo depicts Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with King from Selma to Montgomery. Saul Berman, later the rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, was among those who joined the civil-rights battles in the South. Rabbi Berman actually spent Purim 1963 in a Selma, Alabama, jail (and was able to secure a megillah to read in his cell!).
King, for his part, was a supporter of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. He viewed the battle for black rights as part of a broader struggle for the rights of all humanity, rights conferred by G-d. Writing to Irving Engel, a New York lawyer and friend, King stated in 1965: “Were it not for the faith of many of my friends, it would be much more difficult to stand up under the barbs and jibes of the many people who misunderstand our drive to make the American dream a reality for all men.”
Speaking to the American Jewish Congress in July 1958, King envisioned a shared destiny for Jews and blacks. He said: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries – not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
In 1965, at an Atlanta dinner honoring his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, King drew a direct link between the Israelite struggle in Egypt to the black struggle in the United States. He said: “The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in the Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go.’ This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in our country is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. Something within has reminded the Negro of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.”
Indeed, “Let my people go” was the refrain of a 19th-century Negro spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” Its words are timeless: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land / Let my people go / Oppressed so hard they could not stand / Let my people go / Go down, Moses / Way down in Egypt’s land / Tell old Pharaoh / Let my people go.” Negro Americans saw themselves in the persecuted Israelites and their southern slave masters in Pharaoh.
I urge readers who have never heard King’s “I have a dream” speech to watch it on YouTube. If you have heard it, listen to it again. Part sermon, part lecture, part plea, he calls, nay, demands, that we marshal our better selves in search of a brighter future.
I believe we Jews owe Dr. King a massive thank you – for his struggle truly mirrors our own.