Word of the jailing and release of Martin Luther King Jr. from an Alabama jail in February 1965 reached Jerusalem quickly and drove some of Israel’s intellectual elite to write to President Lyndon B. Johnson about it.
The letter, discovered in the Martin Buber Archive at the National Library of Israel, is dated February 14th, 1965. It was written shortly before Buber’s death and is the only letter to an American president found among the philosopher’s personal papers.
Just a few months after receiving the Nobel Prize, King had been jailed on February 2, 1965, after leading some 300 protestors in Selma, Alabama. He would quickly be released and meet with President Johnson just a few days later to discuss voters’ rights.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply influenced by the Israeli Jewish philosopher Buber. In 1963’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, one of the defining statements of the United States civil rights movement, King referenced Buber directly, using his famous “I and Thou” principle to argue against the evils of segregation and “relegating persons to the status of things.”
The professors’ letter to President Johnson, February 14th, 1965. From the Martin Buber Archive, National Library of Israel
Full transcript of the letter:
Dear Mr. President,
We are taking the liberty to express our deep satisfaction that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is now again a free man and can continue his righteous fight for the equality of his people, a fight to which you Mr. President, have given your full assistance.
We are not equally sure that all of the other emprisoned [sic] 300 liberty fighters have meanwhile been released. If this suspicion should prove correct, we submit that urgent steps should be taken to return all of them as soon as possible to their families.
Believe us, Mr. President,
Professors at the Hebrew University
This article first appeared on The Librarians, the National Library of Israel’s official online publication dedicated to Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern history, heritage and culture.