Martin Luther King and the Jews

I cannot imagine Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. approving of the way Jews are being treated in today’s America.

Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr. on December 7, 1965. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr. on December 7, 1965.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared eager as he entered the University of Illinois, Chicago, student union during my sophomore year. He was promptly escorted, without fanfare, to the stage lectern. This impromptu event was held in a smaller venue, with a limited contingent of students and media present. I felt privileged to have received the last-minute invite.
He explained the purpose of his trip. King passionately weighed in on the notorious state of living conditions endured by so many African-Americans residing in Chicago slums. Historically, from the days of their migration north, most were coerced into restricted Chicago neighborhoods. He drew the attendees’ attention toward the poorly maintained, frequently bug-and-rat-infested apartments, located not that distant from the more appealing “white” area housing.
Unmarked, but always understood, were the turf borders that kept blacks and whites separate, as well as the understood consequence should blacks or whites, either by accident or design, cross into the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time.
King went on to reveal with an air of disbelief that in his many years of protesting unjust and ugly circumstances in the Deep South, even with its brutal history of lynching’s and remorseless segregation; he never experienced such intense, vicious hatred and anger as he endured during his Chicago protest appearances. At that point, individuals scattered throughout the audience began to loudly boo.
He continued on unphased, as if these antics were of little consequence. Still, I was embarrassed by the disrespect shown and by my reticence to silence the perpetrators. A fellow student then leaned over and whispered with pride that his father owned several of these so-called, “slum buildings.” Again, I was silent.
Rev. King took a few brief questions before being escorted out by the promoters of the event. I stood up to leave, but paused as King looked in my direction and felt his eyes lock into mine.
I held my thoughts during the long ride home, while my driver ranted against King. We did not have that much to do with each other after that day.
Not that long afterward, I signed up for the first black-American history course offered at the newly constructed University of Illinois, Chicago Circle campus. The program was under the direction of Prof. Arna Bontemps, a renowned black poet and friend of Dr. King.
I found myself a welcomed minority in that class, intent on expanding my knowledge of black experiences in America. I found it enlightening and yet, at the same time, painful. Still, it helped crystallize my sense to the injustice of centuries of forced slavery thrust upon both my brothers and sisters of color, and to my people – Jews – as well. Escalating levels of maltreatments and indignities would follow. Black lynchings and targeted murder of Jews seemed to have had free rein. Toleration of such atrocities over time, I suspect, contributed to the Nazi-inspired, “Final Solution.”
AMONG MY classmates, I would initiate provocative discussions regarding these and other abominations brought up in Bontemps’s class. To my dismay few of my African-American classmates knew Jews personally, or anything of our history. During all of the heated exchanges, no one attempted to instill guilt in me or silence me. In fact, I was respected for pursuing the full-year program, and my willingness to attack discrimination by any means.
Bontemps reinforced how Rev. King and other black leaders continually sought the most opportune means to achieve parity in a hostile, prejudiced America. This included peaceful confrontation, as well as seeking legal protections to allow black and other minority children an opportunity to become educated, without either psychological or physical intimidation. He brought up the recently enacted landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act as the effective starting point. This provided designated groups with recourse, as appropriate, for acts of overt, repeated, targeted discrimination while in pursuit of education, and afterward, in seeking employment opportunities.
With deference, Prof. Bontemps relayed many instances of Dr. King acknowledging the organized and individual contributions of Jews, as well as bravery demonstrated while helping people of color during especially difficult and dangerous times. These included demonstrations where dogs, police batons, fire hoses and projectiles were employed.
There was no differentiation in treatment shown white Jews and blacks detained or arrested. Jews were often targeted upon release by waiting white mobs. In fact, during the 1950s and ‘60s, whites who aided in the cause of black civil rights and voter registration generally received harsher treatment as the price for what was construed, race betrayal.
That was then and this is now. While African-Americans are finding a modicum of better acceptance, the message of the Holocaust seems to have vanished. Antisemitism once again afflicts our nation, as well as much of the world, and is escalating. Shame upon those who choose silence or purposeful ignorance: black, white and brown; Jew, gentile, Muslim and others.
People, who know better and should be speaking up all too frequently seek cover within the silent majority. This includes people of color who have forgotten their history as they close their eyes, cover their ears and shut their minds to the painful malice afflicting Jews, and their tiny promised refuge in the Middle East, Israel.
I cannot imagine Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. approving of the way Jews are being treated in today’s America. I strongly suspect, at the very least, he would not stand idly by, in the face of torment endured by Jewish brothers and sisters – no matter if the ranks of the perpetrators included fellow reverends spewing antisemitic rhetoric, or a US president whose memory feeds unjustified hostility toward Israel – each would be held to account. Gut-wrenching falsehoods permeating today’s society, including the labeling of the Holocaust nonexistent or greatly exaggerated, would not be summarily dismissed.
Dr. King, a Zionist in his own right, would not have chosen silence as that would have violated his belief of an injustice done to one is an injustice done to all, and must not be excused by any.
The writer has contributed op-eds to The Miami Herald, Washington Examiner, American Thinker, The Jerusalem Post, and is the author of the geo-political thriller First, the ‘Saturday People’, and then the...