Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Man and the Mission
Since 1988, The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Courage to Remember Holocaust exhibit has traversed the globe. Opening in Vienna, on the very street where hordes of Austrians hailed Adolf Hitler as their savior in 1938, Courage has been viewed by millions from Buenos Aires to Beijing, from New Delhi to New York, from Bangkok to Los Angeles, from Miami to Mumbai. But last week, as we presented it here in Atlanta, we found a perfect match in the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who also always had “the courage to remember.”
No, Dr. King did not fight the Nazis during WWII, he was only a teenager then, though many African Americans fought, bled and died in Europe so others could live.
MLK emerged after 1945 into a changing world in which the U.S. struggled to solve “The American Dilemma” of racial inequality at home at the same time as it promoted democracy abroad.
We think of MLK—still in his twenties—emerging meteor-like to articulate the goals of the spontaneous nonviolent protest against Jim Crow ignited in Birmingham in December, 1955, by seamstress Rose Parks. Yet Rev. King viewed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) movement, not only as a Southern crusade against Jim Crow, but as a national crusade in behalf of racial equality and as an international crusade to share the best in the American Dream.
Black troops were present at Buchenwald and Dachau within days of liberation, and what they saw left enduring impressions on minds and hearts. We at the Simon Wiesenthal Center heard this compelling testimony from Samuel Pisar, who was a 15-year-old Survivor in 1945, of the Death March from Dachau, “I was running closer and closer to the [American] tank . . . the hatch opened and a tall, helmeted black man climbed out. I had never seen a black man before. . . . He must have seen that I was weak, sick-looking, with a shaven head. . . . the only thing I could think of was to kneel, to put my arms around his legs and begin to yell, in the few words of English my mother had signed when she prayed for our deliverance, ‘God bless America!'”
African American-Jewish civil rights cooperation had roots dating back before World War I from the founding of the NAACP in 1909. Jewish lawyers like Jack Greenberg helped draw up the briefs that Thurgood Marshall presented in 1954 to the U.S. Supreme Court which outlawed Jim Crow schools. Jews—including Stanley Levison, a member of MLK’s inner circle—were crucial to the success of the SCLC. In 1963 at the March on Washington, young Jews carried signs reading in Hebrew and English the biblical quotation inscribed on the base of the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.” As many as a third of the white Northern college students who risked their lives to join 1964’s Mississippi Freedom Summer to register black voters were Jews. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were lynched beside black Mississippian James Earl Chaney. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fled Hitler’s Germany and became a close friend of MLK, marched with him hand-in-hand in Selma in 1965 for voting rights because he believed that “the Exodus is far from completed.”
MLK became a “Jewish hero” not least because the Jewish state of Israel always remained central to his vision. Almost a year after 1967 Sixth Day War, he declared: “I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world and a marvelous example of . . . how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”
But it was not only his consistent support for Israel that attracted so many young, and generally clueless young Jews. Many of us were angry about the injustices we saw around us, by the still open wound of 6 million dead European Jews and by the failure of the Jewish Establishment to save them or to speak out for 3 million Jews trapped in a spiritual dead-end known as the Soviet Union.
At a time when most Jewish leaders feared to poke the Soviet Bear, Dr. King spoke out, again and again summed up in these powerful words:
“I cannot stand idly by, even though I live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro, and fail to be concerned about what happens to my brothers and sisters who happen to be Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them, happens to me—and to you…”
Those acts of solidarity alone would have confirmed him as our hero, but it was his vocabulary that made him our teacher, our Rebbe. For the words of our Prophets were his most potent weapons.
He told the Synagogue Council of America, in December 1965: “The Hebrew prophets belong to all people because their concepts of justice and equality have become ideals for all races and civilizations. . . .The Hebrew prophets are needed today because we need their flaming courage; we need them because of the thunder of their voices is the only sound stronger that the blasts of bombs. . . . “
To graduates of Lincoln University, he put it thus: “So let us be maladjusted, as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Martin Luther King, not only knew this Jewish dictum, he lived it: “In remembrance lie the roots of salvation; in forgetfulness, the roots of destruction.”
Last week we promised the 6 million and our Rebbe, Dr. King—We will never forget!
Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Brackman, a historian. is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. This article was originally published by The Hill.