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A half-century later, rabbis recall marching with Martin Luther King

‘He preached and practiced peace’

 
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King was his name, and regal he was — full of quiet dignity, power, and wisdom.

I remember Martin Luther King during the siege of Birmingham, Ala. Bull Connor’s rednecks and bloodhounds were baying in the streets. In a modest motel room, a bunch of Conservative rabbis were listening spellbound as he quoted the prophet Amos and the philosopher Martin Buber, expounding on the spiritual and ethical foundations of the civil rights struggle. With true biblical fervor and modern sophistication, he justified the sacrificial courage demanded by freedom rides, sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations. For those of us who were present, his gentle voice and deathless message remain a lifelong inspiration

King was an extraordinary human being. He had his flaws and faults, as all men do, yet he towers above most supposed leaders of the 20th century.

He was, of course, first and foremost a giant of the African American community. “Black is beautiful” was one of his themes. He imbued vast multitudes of his black fellow citizens with a sense of purpose and self-worth. And he pioneered nonviolence as the right method of attaining noble goals.

He was a loyal and proud American, dedicated to the highest ideals of justice and equality embodied in the Constitution of the United States. He demanded that this nation — his nation — live up to those ideals.

He was a passionately committed citizen of the world, too. He preached and practiced peace everywhere on the globe. He opposed bloodshed in distant continents as well as in the United States. And he was a true admirer of Judaism, a source of his own Christian beliefs, and a trustworthy friend of the Jewish people. He profoundly appreciated the moral and material support that American Jewry freely offered to him and to his cause. The image of his walk at Selma, side by side with the venerable Abraham Joshua Heschel, is surely etched in the marble of American history — and in the hearts of millions, black and white, Jewish and gentile.

Martin Luther King spoke out fearlessly against the persecution and oppression of Jews in the now thankfully defunct Soviet Union. He denounced anti-Semitism everywhere, and pointed out that anti-Israel attitudes are but a disguised form of the age-old curse of Jew-hatred. He prayed for Israel’s peace and security in the midst of a free and humane Middle East.

Alas, he died, too young, too early. In a world in which the term “martyr” has been cheapened and debased to apply to fanatical suicide-murderers, one longs to rediscover the classical, original, beautiful meaning of the word: one who lovingly gave his life — and death — for a noble ideal.

The world is vastly impoverished by his absence, yet immensely enriched by his example and teachings. His sense of righteousness and compassion, commitment to his own people and universal human solidarity, are desperately needed by us all today.

This piece is reprinted from the Jan. 13, 2006 Jewish Standard.

 

More on: A half-century later, rabbis recall marching with Martin Luther King

 
 
 

For the American Jewish community, the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is an occasion to recall the historic bonds between African-Americans and American Jews —bonds forged in alliances for important causes, unique cultural collaborations, and, sadly, in their common fate as victims of racism and persecution.

That shared fate is symbolized in two stunning editorial cartoons by Edmund Duffy that appeared in the Baltimore Sun in the 1930s. Duffy (1899-1962), who was born and raised in Jersey City, studied at the legendary Art Students’ League school in New York City, where he developed his signature charcoal-style technique. In 1924, Duffy landed the position of editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun, a post he held for the next 24 years. During that period, Duffy won the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning three times, a feat that only five cartoonists in American history have achieved.

 
 

At least that was the case in the 1960s, he says, when Dresner, now rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, was one of dozens of rabbis who answered the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy from the North to join the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South.

From the Freedom Rides of 1961 to the famous march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked in the front row with King, Jews were prominent participants in the battle for civil rights that dominated the first half of the ’60s.

Of the thousands of white activists who headed South, nearly half were Jewish, according to “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice,” a 1998 publication of the Reform movement.

 
 
 
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