A King Who Set Us Free From Our Own History

Forty-five years ago this month, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered one of the preeminent speeches of American lore, his classic “I Have A Dream” message. Among the 300,000 who joined in the March on Washington were a disproportionate number of Jews, including rabbis, professors and social servants. They had marched with the young preacher before that day, and they continued to do so for the remaining five years of his brief life.

King sometimes compared his struggle to that of Moses. He occasionally quoted the Talmud, and in general expressed a kindred spirit between blacks and Jews. He noted that both peoples had been afflicted historically by various pharaohs.

Jewish tears surely were shed when King was cut down in 1968. But what many Jews don’t realize is that, in significant ways, King was our spiritual leader, too.

On this 45th anniversary of the March on Washington, it would behoove the Jewish community not to dwell only upon what Jews gave to blacks in the days of the civil rights social revolution. The partnership of Jews and blacks in that era of the freedom marches produced benefits not only for the indigenous black victims of Southern segregation.

What Jews also might remember is that our involvement, besides being the morally correct choice, gave a great deal back to us as individuals and as a community.

When Jewish activists made their way to Birmingham and Selma, Ala., and Jackson, Miss., they were fulfilling their own idea of what Judaism is meant to be. The biblical prophets, from Isaiah to Amos to Jeremiah, mandated that we practice a religious life based less on the rituals and more on the acts of justice that repair the world. King effectively challenged Jews and others to convert Scripture into action.

The plight of black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s cleared an avenue of spiritual meaning for many Jews at the time who, frankly, were not otherwise engaged by their Judaism. King awakened our collective conscience. While we (and many other motivated whites) helped blacks to desegregate drinking fountains, to unlock the doors of state universities and to open up voting booths, they in turn were opening up our Jewish souls and helping us to negotiate some of our own religious ambivalence.

In general, it was science and justice, not faith and spirituality, that defined those heady days of the Great Society and the war on poverty. Jews thought much more about the effects of Sputnik than they did about the impact of the Sabbath. The European ashes of fascism were still fresh in the earth; few dared to disturb them with a museum or a motion picture about what the Nazis had done. The Jews were practically waiting for the civil rights movement to give us somewhere to alight.

In those days, many Jews were invested with philosophical questions about society, and with making sure that Jews fit in — assimilated — into the overall fabric of America. Religious rituals were not demonstrated too loudly; socially redeeming ideas counted more.

I heard rabbis mixing quotations from Ezekiel with the poetry of Gandhi. Inspired by the presence and oratory of King, Jewish leaders scrambled to draw a line — and it was a legitimate one — from Pharaoh to Lester Maddox. The urgent themes and sensibilities of civil integration and labor justice helped define our community in King’s day and age.

The chant “We shall overcome” was, to some degree, a political plank of almost every synagogue and Jewish agency back then. Jews did not just give to blacks in those important days; blacks gave to us as well.

Frankly, the moral implications of King’s movement provided Jews with an agenda long before our more recent infatuation with rituals, the Hebrew language, Jewish literacy and continuity. The typical American Jew 45 years ago knew a lot more about Martin Luther King, Jr., than about Oskar Schindler.

There is no question that King associated himself with the Jewish people and that we identified with him. In the 1950s and 1960s, a great many Jews from all walks of life befriended him, supported him, marched with him. Some went to prison with him. A few died.

They knew his travail; they truly heard him. They found rich common ground between the way in which the Georgia pastor homiletically rendered an old Negro spiritual and how they themselves recited a biblical psalm.

King set us free from the confines of our own, difficult history, and he sent Judaism on a redemptive journey across the towns and courthouses and churches of America. We ought to remember him now, even as we do our part in fulfilling his dream for America’s ethnic mosaic.

Rabbi Ben Kamin is the founder of Reconciliation: The Synagogue Without Walls and author of the forthcoming “Nothing Like Sunshine: A Memoir of My High School, A Friend and Martin Luther King” (Michigan State University Press).

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Ben Kamin

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A King Who Set Us Free From Our Own History

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