New book details MLK Jr.’s relationships with Jews

NEW YORK — While Americans know much about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s battles for civil rights for blacks, they know almost nothing about his connections to Jews.

As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches Monday, a new book is highlighting the complicated, sometimes ambivalent, connection between Jews and the civil rights movement.

The author of “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and The Jewish Community” is Marc Schneier, a modern Orthodox rabbi in New York who is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and of the New York Board of Rabbis.

His book provides information that was, until now, little known beyond experts in the field and the players themselves.

“The extent of the Jewish community’s very superficial knowledge of King’s relationship with the Jewish community is that [Rabbi] Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with him,” Schneier said. “This book sheds new light. I want it to be used as a way for the Jewish community to be able to have a more meaningful and factual commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday.”

Among the stories related to King and the civil rights movement found in Schneier’s new book:

*King repeatedly used the Jewish experience as a model of success over oppression. He respected and admired values taught by Judaism and, as a deeply religious man, felt inspired by the Torah itself.

He was sure that an alliance between blacks and Jews was fundamental to progress in civil rights. King felt a sense of kinship with the Jewish people and welcomed — even expected — Jewish support and felt let down when it was not forthcoming.

*Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was forced by his members to withdraw an invitation to King to speak at the group’s 1959 convention in Miami.

*Most Southern Jews, concerned about their own vulnerability and comfort, preferred the status quo to standing up on behalf of the black cause and resisted the civil rights effort. Those rabbis who did get involved were primarily from the Reform movement in the northern states; later involvement came from Conservative Jews and essentially none from the Orthodox.

*The Jews who were professionally involved in dismantling racial discrimination, like one of King’s closest aides, Stanley Levison, were generally secular rather than religious.

*King spoke to the Southern Baptist Convention against proselytizing Jews.

*A Jewish woman, Esther Brown, in Topeka, Kan., instigated the lawsuit Brown vs. Board of Education. That 1954 Supreme Court decision put an end to legally mandated racially segregated schools.

Though the plaintiff named was a different person with the same surname — a black man named Oliver Brown — the whole effort began because Esther Brown resented the fact that her housekeeper’s children were receiving an inferior education. She persevered though harassment and threats, her husband losing his job and a cross-burning on their lawn.

*The Reform movement urged its members to get involved with the Freedom Rides, which began in 1961 in an effort to integrate Southern transportation and bus stations. Consequently, nearly two-thirds of all white Freedom Ride participants were Jewish.

*Among the group of clergymen known as the Tallahassee 10, arrested in that Florida city in 1961 for protesting segregation, were two Reform rabbis from New Jersey. One of them, Rabbi Israel Dresner, had a close personal relationship with King until his assassination.

*The Rev. James Bevel, a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Selma, Ala., liked to wear a yarmulke because it expressed his affection for the Hebrew prophets and also helped him stay out of jail, since “Mississippi sheriffs were so mystified by the sight of a Negro preacher in a ‘Jewish beanie’ they preferred to let him alone.”

He wore one at the press conference announcing King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., which prompted hundreds of marchers to wear what they called “freedom caps.”

*King met Heschel for the first time at a conference on religion and race in 1963 and became close, with King calling Heschel “my rabbi.”

They appeared together many times, most famously when Heschel joined the march from Selma to Montgomery. In 1968, King spoke at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly convention.

When he entered the hall, he was greeted by 1,000 rabbis singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew. King was planning to join the Heschel family for a Passover seder that year, but was assassinated before he could.

Schneier believes that these stories can improve black-Jewish relations in a meaningful way.

He obtained a $25,000 grant to distribute thousands of copies of the book to leading blacks and Jews. The book is being sent to heads of Jewish federations, community relations councils, local boards of rabbis and board members of rabbinical organizations.

Next month, in connection with Black History Month, he will distribute the book to leaders of black organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the congressional black delegation and the United Negro College Fund.

“The African American community has no clue as to Dr. King’s involvement with the Jewish community, the state of Israel, the plight of Soviet Jews, his many references to the Holocaust, and his condemnation of anti-Semitism, especially when the virus erupted among African Americans,” Schneier said.

“I want them to follow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s path of commitment to Jewish concerns.”

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