February 9, 2006
We Mourn ‘First Lady’ of Civil Rights
The Jewish community mourns the passing of the first lady of the civil rights movement.
Coretta Scott King understood that a people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they fight for the rights of all people. In this spirit, she championed the legacy of her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in strengthening black-Jewish relations, in fighting for the civil rights of Jews and in supporting the issues and concerns of the Jewish community with the State of Israel in particular. Coretta Scott King, who died Jan. 30 at the age of 78, was honored Tuesday in a tribute attended by four presidents and an estimated 10,000 mourners. She recognized that in the civil rights struggle, no segment of American society had provided as much and as consistent support to her husband and to blacks as did the Jewish community.
In 1995, at a time of heightened tensions between blacks and Jews, in the aftermath of anti-Semitic pronouncements by Minister Louis Farrakhan, King accepted my invitation to come to New York, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, to address leaders of national Jewish organizations on the state of black-Jewish relations. At this landmark gathering, held at the World Jewish Congress, King reaffirmed her husband's deep sensitivity for Jewish concerns and tradition. She repeated the words of her late husband, spoken at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly 10 days before his assassination in 1968: "Anti-Semitism is as vile and contemptible as racism. Anyone who supports it, including African Americans, does a disservice to his people, his country and his God."
Her empathy and outspokenness showed the bravery and the firmness of her conscience and her supreme commitment to our two communities that the history of blacks and Jews is a story of two groups of people who have suffered uncommon persecution but who have persevered with uncommon faith.
At this assembly, I announced that in tribute to her late husband, various sections of the World Jewish Congress, including Asia, Europe and South America, were to commemorate King's 65th birthday.
In 1998, I visited with her to receive her blessing for my new book project, "Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community." I remember the conversation well. She felt it was time that the torch be passed to the next generation and suggested that I ask her son, Martin Luther King III, recently elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to write the foreword on behalf of the family. This collaborative effort led to a personal and intimate relationship with Martin and the King family that continues to this very day.
I also recall fondly in September 2003, before Martin and I traveled to South Africa, King's expressions of elation and joy that the two of us were bringing the model of black-Jewish relations to Johannesburg and Cape Town with the participation of President Thabo Mbeki.
The Jewish community mourns the passing of this noble woman of valor and dignity who devoted her life to her husband's dream of human rights and human freedom and was instrumental in revitalizing black-Jewish relations at a critical juncture. May her memory encourage people of all faiths and ethnicities to continue the struggle for justice and equality.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, based in New York and Washington, and is author of "Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community" (Jewish Lights, 1999).
Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.