On Monday, America observes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is a time to remember a great man whose heroic leadership and tireless work helped secure equal rights for African-Americans.
Dr. King is rightfully known for his pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. What is less known — but well worth remembering — is that Dr. King saw a clear parallel between the struggle of his own people for equality, and the struggle of another group familiar with oppression: the Jewish people.
John Lewis, a U.S. politician who worked side-by-side with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement, noted King's deep understanding of the shared experience of Jews and African-Americans in a 2002 article for the San Francisco Chronicle. Lewis wrote that Dr. King "knew that both peoples were shaped by the tragic experience of slavery. He knew that both peoples were forced to live in ghettos, victims of segregation… King understood how important it is not to stand by in the face of injustice. He understood the cry, 'Let my people go.'"
Dr. King was also a staunch supporter of the modern State of Israel, which was born during his lifetime. At a 1968 national rabbinical convention he said, "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. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality."
This strong support of Israel and the Jewish people was reciprocated by countless American Jews, who were some of the earliest and most ardent supporters of King's efforts for equality for African-Americans. Jewish organizations offered material, moral, and financial support to the Civil Rights Movement. Members of the African-American and Jewish communities marched together to protest discrimination throughout the southern U.S. — and in some cases died together.
This alliance was and is built on a spiritual foundation, a shared history of faith, born from oppression. It is beautifully illustrated in the old African-American song that became one of the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement — a song that tells the story of the Jewish people's release from bondage in biblical times — "Let My People Go."
Dr. King once wrote, "I solemnly pledge to do my utmost to uphold the fair name of the Jews … because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all." May we remember these words this coming Monday and beyond as we continue our efforts against discrimination and seek to honor and emulate our God of peace.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein