Many have seen photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. marching with rabbi and scholar Abraham Heschel in Selma and other places, but few know of the close friendship and bonding that developed between the two and the profound influence they exerted on one another.
Sometimes in recent times we hear of claims of Martin Luther King ultimately turned against Israel in his perspective on world affairs. A full evaluation will, however, reveal to the contrary he was a true ally and admirer of Israel’s national principles as well as supporter of its ongoing presence. In a March 26, 1968 speech 2 weeks before his assassination Dr. King in a revealing speech expressed this heartfelt support : “ Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist …I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.” This support by King is additionally revealed in his co-sponsorship of October 13, 1963 of the Conference on Soviet Jewry at Carnegie International Center as well as his January 16 th letter to the Soviet Union urging Moscow to change its policy regarding Jews. In the demonstration of King in Selma hundreds of King’s followers wore yarmulkes in solidarity and gratitude to Jewish support of King’s efforts.
The alliance between King and Heschel is an intriguing saga and may first be told by understanding how each had come to certain views that united them. Both were born under circumstance where their peoples were subject to oppression. This included Heschel born within pogroms in Russia and King within oppressive segregation and denial of rights in the US South. At the core of both of their perspectives is a vigorous advocacy of universal rights. Both King and Heschel held a common view that a respect for human rights cannot ever be confined to particular groups but must be extended to all groups as part of a cornerstone commitment to universal rights. One example of King’s expression is a view he stated at the New York Conference of Religion and Racism (January 14, 1963). Here King asserted unequivocal solidarity with Herschel’s opposition to the Soviet treatment of the Jews.
Both tapped the Tenach and particularly the Prophets in supporting this world view. In his acclaimed march on Washington before the Lincoln Memorial King quoted Amos in declaring “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water,” (Amos 5:24). Within jail cell in Montgomery in his March 1956 he declared this inspirational eloquent message, “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.” Heschel for his part references the Jew’s slavery under the Pharaoh as having special relevancy while marching with the King to secure freedom. Both jointly opposed the war in Viet Nam taking yet another moral stand against what they considered an injustice that went beyond the immediate concerns of their own peoples.
A second parallel uniting them is the establishment of a state of justice or kingdom of God on earth rather than a hereafter. Although King’s Christian’s roots provided an emphasis on the hereafter he extended this commitment especially through the influence of the Baptist thinker Walter Rauschenbusch (Christianity and Social Crisis) who extended the notion of the “kingdom of God” to the life in this world as well as the hereafter. This was part of his dedication to what was called the Social Gospel movement originating in the early twentieth century which has its parallel in Judaism with the Jewish role of justice in the Torah and clarified by Prophets and rabbinic thought. ” The Social Gospel movement in its original form addressed social injustices among workers, children and schools but in King and others led its application to civil rights of minorities in the sixties without its affiliation with socialism .Further this involved a remarkable parallel with the Jewish concept of a messianic age.
Another aspect of the relationship between Heschel and King are the complementary traits that they exhibited in relation to one another in their approach to ensuring human rights. King although a visionary, possessed more of a rational side while Heschel’s nature shifted towards the mystical. King planned effectively and strategically mapped out his courses of action learning from experience. For example in his Birmingham Alabama, campaign he timed his protest to occur after the local elections so that the most radical of candidate for mayor, namely, Bull O’Connor, would not gain votes from King’s presence. It appeared that King was inspired by Heschel’s spiritual side and Heschel by Kings practical side and its efficiency (although moved by his spiritual side as well) in their commitments to lead meaningful lives. Herschel in his life perspective spoke of a “leap to action “from an intuitive (preconceived) sense of the sublime. King for his part saw in Heschel’s intuitive side with visionary elements the underlying mystical foundation for his commitments. In fact a rather similar experience was described by King in his early Montgomery experience which dissipated his personal fears of harm by an ineffable sense that God will be with him. In this reciprocal linkage each spoke of one another as a prophet where prophet embodies both the mystical and practical sides. In an essential sense they were each other’s ministers.
King and Heschel remained friends and spiritual brothers ever since they met at the 1963 National Council of Christians and continued protesting together throughout until King’s assassination in April 1968.The rapport and bonding between them was immediate. Each attempted to demonstrate how their religious commitments compelled them to take a moral stand in support of civil rights. Morality in their view was demanded by their religious identity revealed in their frequent use of quotes from Prophets.
Most revealingly King delivered the keynote address at Heschel’s birthday on March 25, 1968 10 days before his assassination. Here Heschel emotionally said “Martin Luther King is a sign God has not forsaken America. His presence is the hope of America.” In response King said “Hershel is indeed truly a great prophet”. Here and there we find those who refuse to remain silent and they are seeking to make the great ethical insights of Judaic Christian culture relevant in this day and age.” The words of both are truly a great tribute to the relationship that helped shape them and in turn help shaped America. .