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Ties between Blacks and Jews go back decades. An ex-congresswoman wants to strengthen the bond

Michigan Democrat Brenda Lawrence takes over as executive director for Spill the Honey

A former member of Congress who helped spearhead the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations is hoping to continue her legacy in a new role heading up a nonprofit.

This week, Brenda Lawrence, who represented Michigan’s 14th Congressional District between 2015 and 2023, was named the new executive director of Spill the Honey. The organization aims to further the bonds of Black and Jewish communities while advocating for their shared civil rights.

Lawrence’s relationship with the Jewish community runs deep, she said, pointing to her years spent as school board member, city council member and mayor in Southfield, Michigan, home of the state’s largest synagogue. During that time, Lawrence came to appreciate the “rich connection and affection for the power of the Black community working with the Jewish community.”

She stressed her strong relationship with the late John Lewis, who was an instrumental figure in the Civil Rights Movement and who she said regularly touted Jewish contributions to that movement. 

“Whenever you sit down next to John Lewis, he will start educating you whether you asked or not,” she said. “We, as a Black caucus, saw around the country, if something happened at a synagogue, the Black community would come in support of the Jewish community. If something happened at a Black church, the Jewish community would come in support of the Black community. I went to the 50th anniversary of the Pettus Bridge March for Freedom and there it was highlighted how the Jewish community and rabbis walked side by side with Martin Luther King.”

That history of collaboration is one Lawrence believes is still going strong. As an example, she mentioned a trip commemorating the 100th anniversary of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a vibrant community known as Black Wall Street was looted and burned by a white mob, resulting in at least 300 deaths. Lawrence said that along with descendants of those who were there, she met a group of young Jewish lawyers who were seeking reparations for victims’ families.

She acknowledged that the relationship between the two communities has not always been smooth. Figures like Louis Farrakhan have been divisive — hailed by some for his advocacy and promotion of Black strength, while simultaneously engaging in antisemitic rhetoric. Lawrence said Farrakhan has “a deep love for his people” but she would “not use my energy to stay in the lane where he diverged.” 

Lawrence has, in fact, stood up for Jews in the face of antisemitism from celebrities. In October, as rapper Kanye West first embarked on what turned into a months-long spree of hate-filled media appearances that included Holocaust denial and praise for Hitler, Lawrence publicly denounced him, saying “I’m not afraid to stand up and tell Kanye West, who is a huge influencer in America, ‘what you’re doing is wrong.’”

A slate of Spill the Honey appearances and events has already been announced, including a series of talks at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as Jewish and nonsectarian schools. A showing of the documentary Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance will take place at Atlanta’s Morehouse College on April 4, marking the 55th anniversary of King’s assassination. Despite the economic, political and geographic diversity of both the Black and Jewish communities in the United States, Lawrence said she believes Spill the Honey’s message has broad appeal.

“We’re going to reach as many as we can,” she said. “We feel that every time we have this conversation it grows.”

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