Within the span of 10 days in January, three significant events were memorialized. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was remembered for tackling societal injustices towards African-Americans, as well as bringing irrational racial hatred to the forefront. His birthday fell proximate to the dates set aside to observe the International Holocaust Remembrance day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp by Soviet Military forces in early 1945. These latter events would serve to bring to light the previously inconceivable scope of the Nazis plan to exterminate Jews from the European continent. Dr. King would remember this obscenity.
The overlap of the above brought to mind an unplanned, albeit brief opportunity for me to hear Dr. King speak in the mid 1960’s. At the time, I was a student at the University of Illinois, Chicago branch. A friend who happened to drive me to school that day mentioned almost as an afterthought that he wanted to hear King’s talk after classes. Not having much of a say-so to this unexpected change of plans, and not wishing to search for an alternate ride home, I reluctantly agreed.
We met later that day in a mid-sized Union area set aside for his talk, and quickly secured one of the open couches that allowed us an unobstructed line of sight to the raised stage. I recalled there was a wide walkway aisle in front of us. My friend pointed out this could be opportune should we find the necessity to quickly exit.
Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared distinctive and confident. Yet, he seemed alert to his environment, as if preparing for unexpected danger coming from any direction. I did not see security present. After an introduction he began his unscripted talk. We were close enough to clearly see his facial gestures. He explained the primary reason he was in town. He passionately brought to light the notorious “Slum Lord” living conditions endured by a significant number of his people who were coerced to reside in restricted Chicago areas. He hoped to draw public and press attention to poorly maintained and frequently bug and rat infested apartments, located not that geographically distant from cosmetically appealing white area homes. Unmarked, but always understood were the turf borders that kept blacks and whites apart, and the consequence should blacks, either by accident or by ignorance cross into the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time.
King revealed that in his many years of protesting unjust and ugly circumstances in the deep South, even with its brutal history of lynching’s; he never saw such intense openly expressed hatred and anger, as he experienced during his Chicago visit. At that point the friend that I accompanied; as well as a few other individuals scattered among the audience began to loudly “boo.’” Dr. King, continued on, as if these antics were of little consequence. Still, I was embarrassed by the disrespect shown and by my reticence to tell his detractors to shut up. It was then my driver whispered to me that his father owned one of these Chicago “slum” buildings.
King took a couple of brief questions before being escorted out. I stood up to leave, but paused as King looked in my direction and I felt his eyes lock into mine. I was silent during the long ride home to the north side of town, while my driver ranted against King’s mission. We did not have that much to do with each other after that day.
Not that long afterwards, I signed up for and attended the first Black American History course offered at the newly constructed University of Illinois, Chicago Circle campus. The program was under the direction of Professor Arna Bontemps, a renowned Black Poet.
I found myself a welcomed minority in his class. Intent on expanding my relatively scant knowledge of black experiences in America, I found it enlightening. At the same time it helped crystallize my sense of injustice as to the perpetual mal-treatment endured by my people, Jews, throughout the parallel centuries of Black slavery and continuing into the present. I would bring this up in Bontemps’ class and afterwards in his office; pointing out what I interpreted as comparable histories of oppression and targeted violence. No one attempted to guilt or silence me. In fact, I was respected for even being there and going the distance during the full year program.
Bontemps and I discussed the path Blacks had to take so as to achieve parity in a hostile, prejudiced America, while seeking the means to protect themselves from the endless threats of physical and psychological harm. He brought up the recently enacted Title VI of the Landmark1964 Civil Rights Act as an effective starting point. He also relayed how Martin Luther King, Jr. proudly recognized the organized Jewish contribution and bravery demonstrated to help their brothers and sisters of color, during the difficult times; including participating in Marches in the Deep South, where dogs, police batons, and fire hoses did not discriminate between white Jews and Blacks. Jews received no special treatment in jails, and were often targeted upon release by waiting angry White mobs. In fact, during the 1950’s and 60’s whites who openly aided in the cause of Black civil rights and voter registration causes in the South generally received harsher beatings as the price for what was then viewed as race betrayal.
That was then and this is now. Anti-Semitism now afflicts our great nation as well as much of the world, and is an affront upon all of us: Black, White and Brown; Jew, Gentile; Muslim, and Christian. People of conscience must heed the call to rise against this current injustice, lest we risk awakening the evil inclination responsible for the Holocaust.