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Remembering an Iconic Civil Rights Bond

January 16, 2013 By:
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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (center) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) on a 1965 march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala. The two clergy members became close friends. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary

The photograph evokes an iconic image of the civil rights struggle in America: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel standing at the center of a group of whites and blacks locked arm in arm. They are marching from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, at the peak of the movement.

Heschel later famously said that he felt as if his “legs were praying.”

That image — and the relationship between the two leaders — has come to symbolize the close alliance that once existed between the Jewish and African-American communities. Tomes have been written delving into why black-Jewish relations fell apart in the late 1960s, among them Murray Friedman’s What Went Wrong?: The Creation & Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.

Friedman, the longtime head of American Jewish Committee here who died in 2005, argued that the story was never as simple as it is often depicted and that even at the zenith of the movement, there was underlying tension between emerging black and Jewish leaders.

This month, which marks Heschel’s 40th yarzheit and the annual commemoration of King’s birthday, attention is being refocused on the friendship between the two theological heavyweights. Each sought to use his faith to transform the country politically and socially.

One local synagogue, Mishkan Sha­lom, recently staged a two-day “Heschel-King” festival, a program that touched on the relationship, but focused more on the prophetic tradition that guided both King and Heschel in their activism. Many of the biblical prophets focused less on legalisms discussed in the Torah and instead emphasized ethics and working to eradicate poverty and hunger.

Just what was the extent and depth of the relationship between the two scions, one of a Baptist family from the South and the other of a Chasidic dynasty from Poland who — though not as well-known as King — is considered one of the most influential of Jewish thinkers?

Did the relationship symbolize something larger or was it an anomaly? Can their cooperation serve as an inspiration for faith activists today? Or has the world changed too much?

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University who has written widely about the Jewish and African-American experiences, said that Heschel was unusual in that the overwhelming majority of Jews active in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s came from a secular background.

“Many of them had to learn about prophets like Hosea and Isaiah from the black Christians in the movement,” said Freedman. “Heschel was that rare Jewish activist who deeply knew and understood the textual foundations for the political alliance between blacks and Jews.”

In fact, according to Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, her father was disappointed that more rabbis didn’t join him on marches. (There were several notable exceptions such as Rabbi Arthur Lely­veld, whose son Joseph went on to become editor of The New York Times.)

“At the time of Selma, he was very alone. Jews were not enthusiastic about what my father was doing. It changed after my father died,” she said.

As an academic in Germany in the 1930s, her father was exposed to the prevailing ethos among Protestant thinkers that the Hebrew Bible had little to do with Christianity, she said. (Heschel managed to escape the Nazis, but his mother and two of his sisters died in concentration camps.)

When the African-American-led civil rights movement adopted the Exodus story and Moses as the motif of their cause, Heschel was invariably drawn to it.

The two men met at the 1963 National Conference of Christians and Jews in Chicago. Heschel gave a speech about the evils of racism and the biblical basis for opposing Jim Crow laws. King arrived late and didn’t hear it firsthand, but he heard reports and sought Heschel out.

A few months later, they ran into each other in the Catskills at a gathering of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. King gave a speech about the need to stand up for Israel and Soviet Jews, said Susannah Heschel. 

Her father’s dense treatise on The Proph­ets became standard reading for a number of civil rights activists, Jewish and Christian, Heschel explained. “I don’t like to use cliches — my father never used slang — but they bonded,” she said. “They forged a deep friendship.”

In addition to working with King on civil rights issues, Heschel is credited with urging King to go public with his opposition to the Vietnam War, a stand that did not play well among both Jewish and African-American leadership at the time.

Heschel introduced King at what is today the least known of his three landmark speeches, his address at Manhattan’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — one year to the day before he was assassinated. In the speech, King  laid out his opposition to the war and advocated for a redirection of American society toward combating poverty and economic injustice.

Heschel was one of the featured speakers at King’s funeral. The slain civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King, attended Heschel’s funeral in 1973. Susannah Heschel then developed a long friendship with King’s eldest daughter, Yolanda, who died in 2007.

In looking to the two leaders for inspiration, it’s natural to ask just what issues they would find important today.

“I don’t like questions like that,” said Heschel. “Let’s listen to what they said when they were alive.”

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, director of multifaith studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a longtime friend of Susannah Heschel, takes a different view on whether it is fair game to envision what they would be doing today — that is, up to a point.

“I don’t think I would go into the specifics of ‘Would he be in favor of this?’ ” said Fuchs Kreimer. “They would say, ‘Find yourself allies across faith lines, work together and work across faith differences. You can’t do it alone.’ ”

This past fall, she taught a RRC-sponsored class on Heschel and King that was made up of 10 Jews and 10 Christians. She also served on the planning committee for the Heschel-King festival, held earlier this month at Mishkan Shalom.

According to Rabbi Linda Holtzman, religious leader of the synagogue, organizers of the symposium asked themselves about King and Heschel: “If they were here today, how would the world look in their eyes?”

The speakers at the Heschel-King event included two of King’s closest associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dorothy Cotton and Vincent Harding. The workshops focused on how to use the Heschel-King blend of faith activism to address a variety of issues today, including the environment, economic inequality and human rights abuses.

Holtzman said her congregation is working to shape itself into a center of interfaith, social justice activism. She said that much of the recent discussion centered around the need “to renew the relationships that many of us already have. We really do some solid, concrete social justice work together.”

The program was not without controversy. Philly BDS, which seeks to use economic pressure against what it terms Israeli “apartheid,” was among the co-sponsoring organizations, which led at least one group, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, to bow out as a sponsor.

In his address, Mishkan’s founding rabbi, Brian Walt, deliverered harsh criticism of Israel. A native South African who left Mishkan in 2003 and, until 2009 served as executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Walt went so far as to say that if King and Heschel were alive today, they would be demonstrating against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But he also acknowledged that King and Heschel were both ardently pro-Israel and didn’t really discuss the Palestinians.

Among the attendees was Victoria Gillison, a senior at Friends Central High School and a recent participant in Operation Understanding, a program that brings together African-American and Jewish teens from the Philadelphia area. In the past, the group spent three weeks in Senegal and Israel. More recently, they have focused on touring civil rights landmarks in the South.

Operation Understanding was founded here in 1985, at a low point in black-Jewish relations. In 1984, Jesse Jackson made his infamous “Hymietown” comment during the presidential campaign — highlighting the suspicions and tensions that had been building for nearly 20 years. Later that year, Bernhard Goetz, a white man with Jewish roots, shot four alleged muggers on a Manhattan subway, sparking a national debate about race and self-defense. 

At Operation Understanding’s annual gala on Jan. 10, Gillison took time to reflect on the Heschel-King relationship. “We do have a basis in history. We do remind ourselves every day that we are following a historical path,” said Gillison, who is African-American. “But we have to bring it back to the here and now. What is going on today? How are African-American and Jewish relationships today?”

Jessica Solomon, an Operation Understanding participant who attends the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, said she took away from the Heschel-King festival that interfaith and race relations are “still a work in progress.” She said she takes solace in knowing that there are committed activists who are working in those areas and she hopes to be part of it.

David Hyman, an honoree at the Operation Understanding gala, helped get the group off the ground when he was in his early 30s. (He received an award named for George M. Ross, the late philanthropist who co-founded Operation Understanding with former Congressman William Gray.) For decades, Hyman has been a key player in city politics with deep connections to the African-American and Jewish communities.

Today, Hyman said, the Jewish-black relationship is nowhere near the heights of the 1960s or the lows of the ’80s and early ’90s. Instead, for the Jewish community, the alliance represents just one of many relationships Jewish representatives are constantly cultivating. “It is not as critical and not as prominent among either group’s priorities,” he said. “It has a certain power because of how it transformed the country. There is a self-interest in both groups ensuring that it remains intact so that it is available when needed to work on common issues.”

Hyman said he draws tremendous inspiration from the examples set by King and Heschel. “Coming together symbolically was a poignant moment for our respective communities’ histories and for American history,” he said of the two men who joined forces in a way that “furthered the ideals of our country.”

A Call for Participants

Operation Understanding is seeking Jewish and African-American high school juniors to participate in its 2013 program. The deadline to apply is Jan. 20.

The 28-year-old program was founded as a way to build relationships between future Jewish and African-American leaders. The highlight of the experience is a three-week trip through the American South and East “to explore the shared history and unique cultures of the Jewish and African-American people.”

Participants must live or go to school in Philadelphia, or reside in school districts that border the city of Philadelphia.

For more information, go to: www.operationunderstanding.org.

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