MLK, Jews, Israel and Blacks: In his own words

By Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper*

Declarations to the contrary—most notably by Michelle Alexander’s op-ed in the New York Times—Reverend Martin Luther King’s public words expressing love and support of Israel and the Jewish People abound- from 1956 as a 27-year-old minister new on the national stage to 1968 just before his assassination in Memphis.

Of course, King was a man of peace who became a strong critic of the Vietnam War.  He preferred that wars—including Israel’s defensive victory in 1967—need not have been fought. But he knew the difference between right and wrong whenever Israel confronted its genocidal enemies:

In 1956, the young pastor commented: “There is something in the very nature of the universe which is on the side of Israel in its struggle with every Egypt.” King apotheosized the positive side of African American Christian identification with Zion. In 1959, King made his only trip to the Middle East. Barred by Jordan from visiting the Old City, he was indelibly affected by Jerusalem.

At the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama in 1957, Reverent King preached: I want to preach this morning from the subject: ‘The Birth of a New Nation’. And I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together a story that has long since been stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. It is the story of the Exodus, the story of the flight of the Hebrew people from the bondage of Egypt, through the wilderness, and finally to the Promised Land. It’s a beautiful story. I had the privilege the other night of seeing the story in movie terms in New York City, entitled “The Ten Commandments,” and I came to see it in all of its beauty the struggle of Moses, the struggle of his devoted followers as they sought to get out of Egypt. And they finally moved on to the wilderness and toward the Promised Land. This is something of the story of every people struggling for freedom. It is the first story of mans explicit quest for freedom. And it demonstrates the stages that seem to inevitably follow the quest for freedom.”

In Miami Beach to the national convention of the American Jewish Congress on May 14, 1958—a few months before the KKK bombed a synagogue in Atlanta—King said: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility. . . . Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in the Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go.’ This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in our country is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. Something within has reminded the Negro of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. . . . There are Hitlers loose in America today, both in high and low places, . . . . As the tensions and bewilderment of economic problems become more severe, history’s scapegoats, the Jews, will be joined by new scapegoats, the Negroes. The Hitlers will seek to divert people’s minds and turn their frustrations and anger to the helpless, to the outnumbered. Then whether the Negro and Jew shall live in peace will depend upon how firmly they resist, how effectively they reach the minds of the decent Americans to halt this deadly diversion. . . . There are Hitlers loose in America today, both in high and low places. . . . “As the tensions and bewilderment of economic problems become more severe, history’s scapegoats, the Jews, will be joined by new scapegoats, the Negroes. The Hitlers will seek to divert people’s minds and turn their frustrations and anger to the helpless, to the outnumbered. Then whether the Negro and Jew shall live in peace will depend upon how firmly they resist, how effectively they reach the minds of the decent Americans to halt this deadly diversion. . . . Some have bombed the homes and churches of Negroes; and in recent acts of inhuman barbarity, some have bombed your synagogues — indeed, right here in Florida.”

Speaking in Atlanta in 1965, now a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate , Reverend King declared: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in the Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go.’ This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in our country is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. Something within has reminded the Negro of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.”

The distinguished sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote about a “dinner” given for Reverend King “shortly before he was assassinated in Cambridge” that Lipset attended. According to Lipset, this was on Oct. 27, 1967, four months after the 6-Day War, during a stop on a fundraising tour for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by King. When one African American student made “some remark against the Zionists,” King “snapped” back: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.” Congressman John Lewis in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002 recalled that Reverend King made the same comment “shortly before his death” during “an appearance at Harvard.”

Interviewed by the editor of Conservative Judaism on March 25, 1968, soon after he attended a birthday celebration for Rabbi Heschel before 1,000 rabbis, just ten days before his assassination in Memphis, King recalled his trip on the Jericho Road when Jericho was still in Arab hands, and 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 what can be done, how desert land can almost be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

That is who Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. really was. That is why we Jews will always revere his prophetic legacy. No extreme makeover attempts to serve latter-day haters of Israel—even with the backing of The New York Times—will succeed. May his Memory be a color-blind blessing for all Americans!

*Rabbi Marvin Hier is Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center

About the Author
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean and Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Global Social Action
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