By Avi Goldstein
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 latest comic book selections, not yet knowing about the shot that had rung out in the Memphis sky. Upon returning home at around 7:30 p.m., we were greeted by the tragic news of the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Although I was only ten 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 with readers.
I find it serendipitous that Dr. King’s jubilee yahrtzeit 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” (“My Bondage and My Freedom,” published in 1855).
Yet the eradication of slavery in 1865 did not spell true freedom for blacks. During Reconstruction, the federal government sought to advance black rights in the states that had composed the Confederacy. In fact, Mississippi, the embodiment of a Deep South state, elected two black United States senators and numerous state and local officials during that brief sunshine era.
The withdrawal of federal troops from the south in 1877 resulted in a progressive erosion of black rights. In 1896, the Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision affirmed that “separate but equal” was a constitutionally valid social system. Seventy years of segregation ensued. Racist laws were backed by terror; in many locales, lynching was an accepted way to engender compliance and invoke fear.
The Jewish people in general played a positive role in the battle for equal rights. Jews helped found and fund the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 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 1965 Alabama photo depicts Rabbi 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 civil rights battles in the south. Rabbi Berman actually spent Purim 1963 in a Selma, Alabama jail with Jewish and Christian clergy. Rabbi Berman was able to secure a Megillah to read in his cell!
King, for his part, was a supporter of the Jewish people and of 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 the nineteenth century Negro spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” The words of the song 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.” The symbolism was evident. Negro Americans were represented by Israel, and the slave masters of the south were represented by 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 again. The speech, delivered at the March on Washington in August 1963, is a classic. The remarkable thing is that King did not intend to deliver this particular speech. After a strong start, King’s prepared text seemed to lose its edge. Sensing this, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out: “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream.”
King pauses, abandons his prepared remarks, and proceeds to deliver one of the greatest addresses in American oratorical history. Part sermon, part lecture, part plea, he calls, nay, demands, that we marshal our better selves in search of a brighter future. “I have a dream,” he intones, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
In the swirl of battle, King did not bend from his vision of nonviolent change. On that extraordinary day, standing at the Lincoln Memorial, King said: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
I believe that Jews owe Dr. King a massive thank you. His struggle mirrored our struggle, and as noted above, important Jewish figures understood the linkage.
Martin Luther King, Jr. did not live to see the remarkable changes that have occurred since that dark night in Memphis. We have witnessed the emergence of a strong black middle class. Congress, once almost all white and all male, is now more diverse. Black education levels continue to rise, and we recently elected a black president. Twice. All to the good.
Yet there is so much more to accomplish. In the past few years, our society has become more riven along racial lines.
What would King think about today’s United States? We cannot know for certain, but I suspect he would have mixed emotions. He would certainly revel in the economic and political progress that blacks have made.
King might also decry the fact that overall, black Americans do not occupy an equal economic rung. He would bemoan the weakening of the black family and the preponderance of single motherhood. And he would certainly protest the existence of a penal system that still seems to judge blacks more harshly than it does whites.
Contrary to a claim on MSNBC by Al Sharpton that Dr. King supported specific rights for gays and lesbians, King is on record stating that homosexuality is not a legitimate expression of desire. As a man of G-d, King accepted the Biblical declaration that homosexual conduct is an abomination. I suspect King would have protested the Supreme Court’s misguided ruling on gay marriage.
Sharpton also enthused that King would have supported the late (but not lamented) Occupy movement. We have no evidence that Dr. King would have expressed support for that unmoored project.
On the night of April 4, 1968, the hopes of nonviolent change suffered a critical blow. Dr. King had envisaged a peaceful transition to a more accepting society. When James Earl Ray delivered the fatal bullet, he also struck a fatal blow to King’s dream. A mere two months later, we were rocked by the assassination of yet another visionary, Bobby Kennedy. A late entrant to the presidential campaign, Kennedy had just won the critical California primary. He probably would have won the Democratic nomination and likely would have won the presidency that November. But violence begets violence.
King’s detractors point to his imperfect personal life. He was not always faithful to his wife, Coretta. However, as we learn from Jewish history, it is imperfect leaders who transcend their personal struggles to make their mark on history. It is specifically those with skeletons in their closet who can maintain their connection with common men and women as they rise to great heights.
Dr. King, in the words of the songwriter Bono, “They took your life. They could not take your pride.”
Avi Goldstein works in the automotive industry. He lives in Far Rockaway.