For those of us who closely follow the progress in America in the battles against racism and anti-Semitism, the observance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this year has particular relevance.
First, the King holiday, which this year is observed on Jan. 21, reminds us of two significant anniversaries: It is the 50th anniversary of his historic “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall in Washington, and the 20th anniversary of all 50 states in the union observing the holiday.
Second, as he led the struggle for civil rights in this country, King never equivocated in denouncing anti-Semitism. “The segregationist and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jews,” he stated.
And in a letter to Jewish leaders just months before his 1968 assassination, King said, “I will continue to oppose” anti-Semitism “because it is immoral and self-destructive.”
The message — that it is never enough for Jews and Jewish organizations to condemn anti-Semitism — remains terribly important for the country. Influential leaders from all communities must follow King’s lead.
King’s condemnation of anti-Semitism was and is important for his own community. For too long, levels of anti-Semitism have been too high. And some African-American cultural figures utter sentiments about Jews that remain troubling.
Not only did King react against blatant anti-Semitism, but he anticipated more sophisticated versions. In an appearance at Harvard, as reported by the scholar Seymour Martin Lipset in his book, The Socialism of Fools, King responded to a hostile question about Zionism: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews; you are talking anti-Semitism.”
King understood the importance of standing up for other minorities both as a value and as a way to strengthen support for his work. Perhaps King’s greatest legacy was his conviction that justice for black people could not be achieved in a vacuum, that all Americans must live free in order to guarantee freedom.
Why was obtaining civil rights for African-Americans so important to the American Jewish community? Because it was the right thing to do, and because it was good for all and built coalitions in fighting all forms of prejudice.
King also knew that power politics were important to effecting change. Speeches, marches, demonstrations and sit-ins were all about power politics. But he profoundly understood that appealing to the moral values, the goodness and long-term interests of those who needed to change — the white majority — was the key to changing society.
In the long run, however, changing hearts and minds through education and appealing to the best instincts of America, is the real solution.
The civil rights revolution led by King also further opened up America for Jews and is one of the key elements why today American Jews are the freest community in the 2,000-year history of the Diaspora and why things are so much better for Jews today than 60 or 70 years ago.
Civil rights legislation allowed Jews to challenge their exclusion. Even more, the revolution changed society in a way that being different and expressing one’s differences were no longer seen as liabilities.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s work to seek equality for all was consistent with the values expressed by the Jewish sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be?” One must have pride and stand up for one’s own.
“If I am only for myself, what am I?” To be fully human, one must go beyond one’s own problems and stand up for others.
“If not now, when?” Justice delayed is justice denied.
These values were King’s values. Too often in society today we stray from them. This 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech is a good time to recommit to those things that brought us all together.
Kenneth Jacobson is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.