How King’s dream of freedom from bondage tied him to the Jewish people (COMMENTARY)

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A young usher, holding cap at right, stands solemnly with religious, civil rights and labor leaders on the platform in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the national anthem at the opening of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom program on Aug. 28, 1963. Five of the 10 chairmen of the march also on the platform were, from left to right: Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Walter P. Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers Union; the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, chief executive officer of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and acting chairman of the National Council of Churches' Commission on Religion and Race; and, second from right, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress. Religion News Service file photo

A young usher, holding cap at right, stands solemnly with religious, civil rights and labor leaders on the platform in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the national anthem at the opening of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom program on Aug. 28, 1963. Five of the 10 chairmen of the march also on the platform were, from left to right: Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Walter P. Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers Union; the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, chief executive officer of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and acting chairman of the National Council of Churches' Commission on Religion and Race; and, second from right, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress. Religion News Service file photo

(RNS) Because the mists of legend are rapidly enveloping the life and career of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the federal holiday honoring him is an annual reminder of how much we lost in 1968 when he was assassinated at age 39.

It is not surprising that President Obama mentioned America’s most celebrated civil rights leader in his State of the Union address to Congress. The president spoke of King’s strong belief that the voices of “unarmed truth and unconditional love” would ultimately triumph in the political arena.   

King, a fervent foe of all forms of anti-Semitism, offered his “unconditional love” to Jews and he will always occupy a special place of affection and esteem within the global Jewish community’s collective memory bank. As a gifted religious leader, he linked the liberation of African Americans to the biblical Passover story of the Israelite slaves in ancient Egypt. However, King also saw the creation of the modern state of Israel as an act of religious redemption and deliverance.

He was keenly aware of the radical evil that made the Holocaust possible. In 1963, while a prisoner in the Birmingham jail, King composed a now historic letter asserting that people have a moral responsibility to resist unjust laws through peaceful direct action.

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal,’ he wrote. “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”


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Five years earlier King linked Jewish and African American history with a compelling common image of persecution:

“My people were brought in America in chains…(the Jewish) people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born out of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid us of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

Nor was King fooled by the ruse of those individuals who condemn Zionism, the national Jewish liberation movement, as an evil, but still proclaim they are not anti-Semitic. King saw through the duplicity of such a misleading position:  “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” 

He was clear about the only Jewish state in the world: “Israel’s right to exist as a state is incontestable.” 

Just 10 days before he was killed in Memphis, King publicly declared: “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect her right to exist, its territorial integrity…”

(RNS1-sept13) Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published "Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations." RNS photo courtesy Rabbi Rudin

(RNS1-sept13) Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.” RNS photo courtesy Rabbi Rudin

In 1965, the American Jewish Committee awarded King its Civil Liberties Medallion, the organization’s highest honor. In his response he noted: “ in the streets of Selma and Montgomery and at the Lincoln Memorial (the 1963 civil rights rally) there was the greatest and warmest expression of religious unity of Catholic, Protestant, and Jew in the nation’s history…. Perhaps if there had been a broader understanding of the uses of nonviolent direct action in Germany when Hitler was rising and consolidating his power, the brutal extermination of six million Jews and millions of others might have been averted and Germany might never have become totalitarian.…”

King concluded his acceptance speech with both an eerie sense of foreboding and personal courage: “… But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free (a nation) from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive. Yes, we shall overcome, and we shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. He can be reached at jamesrudin.com . His latest book is “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. ) 

  • Neon Genesis

    And I’m sure Dr. King would be shaking his head at the horrifying way Israel violently suppresses the Palestinians today as well.