Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship with the Jewish community is well known. Jewish leaders and rabbis filled the ranks of King’s closest advisors, collaborators, and confidantes. King’s tenure as leader of the Civil Rights movement was marked as the heyday of black-Jewish relations. Then, shortly after his death, those relations cooled. Had King lived, analysts say the picture might have been different today.
The word most commonly attributed to black-Jewish relations during King’s leadership seems to be “tightness.”
“Those were for the most part, the years when the black-Jewish coalition on behalf of civil rights was at the peak of its power, and King was certainly very much involved in that,” said Professor Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute, to JointMedia News Service.
“King was a leader who emphasized coalitions, particularly coalitions with the Jewish community.”
Many leaders from the Jewish community have become closely associated with the Civil Rights movement in their own right. A photograph of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent activist at the time—depicting him walking with King during the Selma march—is now a symbol of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement. Of this experience, Heschel later remarked, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
Stanley Levison, a businessman from New York, was widely regarded as one of King’s closest advisors. In an incident that resulted in a national uproar and an FBI investigation, three young activists—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were lynched in Mississippi following their investigation of a church burning. Schwerner and Goodman were Jewish, while Chaney was black. Stories of mutual collaboration and sacrifice abound.
According to Carson, much of the positive relationship between the black and Jewish community was to King’s credit. “There are different ways of interpreting Christianity in the black community. For King, the essence of Christianity came out of that prophetic tradition. He didn’t believe in the gospel of posterity, he believed in the gospel of social justice. That linked him I think to Jewish people who interpreted their own religion that way.”
King was also a fervent supporter of Israel, a position that served to strengthen his relationship with the Jewish community. Rabbi Matthew H. Simon marched with King at Selma, and is a life member of the NAACP. He said to the JointMedia News Service, “Dr. King was a great Zionist and a great friend of Israel, making him beloved in the Jewish community at a time when not all those who were supporting civil rights in America were friends of Israel.”
“Dr. King…supported Israel as a Jewish state,” Simon continued.
King frequently spoke out for Israel’s right to exist and against anti-Semitism. At a dinner in Cambridge, MA, King chided a student for an anti-Zionist remark, saying, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.”
Today, black-Jewish relations paint a different picture. According to Carson, this is mostly due to a change in the nature of the issues that once united the two groups. After Civil Rights legislation was passed, economic disparity developed between the two communities, and their priorities changed.
“The relationship was strongest when the issue was ending Jim Crow laws in the South; when the issue became much more about national issues of discrimination and economic inequality, then it was not as strong,” he said. Yet Carson also mentioned the two groups’ remaining commonality, stating, “There’s no two groups that are more committed to social justice issues than black Americans and Jewish Americans.”
Larry Jay Tish, a Jewish actor, runs a two-man comedy show with his business partner, Emmy award winner Ron Jones, called the “Black-Jew Dialogues”. Larry and Ron attempt to explore and educate their audience about the commonalities and challenges faced by their two communities.
From his experience, Tish says, the growing rift between the two communities stems from a lack of education and understanding. “A lot of the African American and Jewish kids have no clue of our history together, so they have nothing really to build on,” Tish said in an interview with JointMedia News Service.
Still, Tish claims that part of the change is due to a new leadership in the black community following King’s assassination. “When Mr. Farrakhan came along and was very anti-Zionist, saying, ‘the blacks need to do it on their own, and we’ve got to break away from Jewish partners’, it created a rift, and a lot of Jewish leaders were asked to step aside. That might be where the rift began,” he said.
So, had King not been assassinated, how might his leadership have altered the two groups’ existing relations? According to Simon, King’s involvement would have lifted one of the biggest impediments to strong black-Jewish relations. “He was excellent at helping people realize commonalities,” Simon said.
“The fact that Dr. King could speak at the Rabbinical Convention is telling, in itself. It’s hard to picture, who in the black community could play that role today,” Simon said referring to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, of which his father was president. The event, roughly a week before King’s assassination, would be one of King’s final public appearances.
Tish believes that King’s relationships within the Jewish community would have kept the doors to dialogue open. “If he wouldn’t have been assassinated, then maybe the rift wouldn’t have been as wide, because those relationships he had would’ve probably maintained and probably still be involved in that dialogue,” he continued, “So I think with him still around, definitely the dialogue would be happening more, and the lack of it wouldn’t have happened so quickly.”
Yet according to Carson, the cooling between the two communities had less to do with King, and more to do with a shift in the issues. Fighting poverty, he said, was the natural next step after the Civil Rights legislation passed. Had King lived, Carson continued, his focus would have shifted to that as well.
“It’s easy for people to admire the king of 50 years ago, because that’s been kind of romanticized..but it’s much more difficult for people to remember that that’s not where King ended up. He ended up concerned about class issues. Concerned about poverty, and the gulf between rich and poor.”
According to Tish, there is no animosity between the two communities. Each is just living in parallel to the other. “It’s not like we’re diverging in different directions. We’re side by side, we’re just not looking at each other as much.”