Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. - an exemplary leader

When King spoke, he praised Israel as an “oasis in the desert.” He lauded the Jewish people for assisting the blacks in the early years of the century and now.

They came to assist Martin Luther King, Jr. in registering African Americans to vote: Peter Geffen and Mickey Shur. (photo credit: COURTESY DAVID GEFFEN)
They came to assist Martin Luther King, Jr. in registering African Americans to vote: Peter Geffen and Mickey Shur.
(photo credit: COURTESY DAVID GEFFEN)
Reverend “Daddy” King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s father, was the chapel speaker at Emory University’s Glenn Memorial Church in the mid-fifties when I was a student there. At that point in time, segregation was rampant in Atlanta, in spite of the Supreme Court Decision. My fellow students and I wondered how Emory could break the color line so easily, since the school had no black students.
We marched into the big chapel that day not knowing what to expect. Present was this all-white audience and a black minister. For all of us it was quite a sight and became a morning to remember.
The university chaplain introduced King, and we all sat on the edge of our chairs waiting for him to begin. “Young men,” he began, since the school had not gone co-ed, “you are most fortunate to be here. When I was your age, I was still performing miniscule tasks with my father. Somehow I got the message, part of it from the girl I courted who became my wife, that God had more in store for me. I became a minister of the gospel and, in time, became head of the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue here in the city.”
I was familiar with Auburn Avenue because my father, Louis Geffen, an attorney, had clients there. In the thirties, the early years of his law practice, he became known to the black community because he was someone to be trusted. I must admit that it was only many years later that I came to know some of my black contemporaries. Segregation truly kept us apart.
King continued by citing the Bible. “When Moses was chosen to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, he was hesitant because his speech was not perfect, ‘tongue-tied.’ So he called on his brother Aaron to help him out,” he said. What we Negros know is that we must lead our people out of Egypt and go forward into the Promised Land. Some of us realize that our speech is not too good, so we need some of you whites to help us. When you listen to me, like you are doing today, you are helping us get on the path to a new life. I want you to know that by the time you are earning a living, we blacks will be on the freedom trail in schools, in business, in the arts and in sports. I am proud that Emory brought me here today and I thank you for being so respectful. Hallelujah!”
I told my parents about this experience, since I still lived at home. “They are good people,” was their response. Some of my fraternity brothers were in favor of black rights, so they thought King’s message was great. The person who truly analyzed this moment for me was my professor of poetry, Floyd C. Watkins. “David, I grew up in Ball Ground, Georgia, where few people finished the eighth grade. I knew the local Negro minister, and he kept saying, ‘Floyd, Floyd you got a mind – use it.’ So I feel that the Negros too have the ability to study and be successful. David, just you wait and see.”
There was a big gap in my life between that Emory chapel address of the father and my actually hearing the son, Martin Luther King, Jr. Truth to tell, I did not do much to help overthrow segregation in the US. I was not a part of sit-ins, teach-ins, or marches, but my cousin Peter Geffen was. In the spring of 1968 he gave me a ride up to the Rabbinical Assembly convention. Held at Kutshers Hotel, the great attraction was Martin Luther King, Jr. He was introduced by his comrade in arms in the struggle, Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Heschel gave a moving introduction before King’s presentation, including these words. “Martin Luther King, Jr., is a voice, a vision and a way. Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
When King spoke, he praised Israel as an “oasis in the desert.” He lauded the Jewish people for assisting the blacks in the early years of the century and now. The atmosphere was electric and I recalled “Daddy” King at Emory telling us what the future held for his people.
In the summer of 1963, my wife, Rita, and I had come to Israel to study. We missed the March on Washington, since we were in Jerusalem. In an unexpected way we were able to feel that great moment in US history. Here in Israel, in those days 49 years ago, movies were accompanied by newsreels. Without TV in Israel then, news came by radio or by newspaper.
We went to the Paladin Theater on Agrippas a week after the march for a movie, but we really wanted to see the newsreel. There on the screen, we witnessed portions of the march, and we heard MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Even more uplifting were the words of a young man sitting behind us. “Zeh manhig,” he said, and we echoed, “That’s a leader!”■

The writer is a rabbi who made aliyah with his wife and three children from Atlanta, Georgia, in 1977