On MLK Day, Recalling the Long History of Jewish-Black Solidarity

Every January, communities around the nation celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that great American prophet of equality. But this year, MLK Day coincides auspiciously with the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of another influential prophetic voice, that of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. The two religious and moral leaders developed a friendship built on mutual admiration and solidarity that would come to symbolize the joint Black-Jewish struggle for civil rights and equality, one that extends back to at least the 19th century.

Compelled by our own experiences as targets of discrimination and our tradition’s teaching that such experiences should move us secure justice for the maltreated and marginalized, the Jewish community played an outsized role in the civil rights movement.“The success of the civil rights movement in raising the consciousness of America,” noted civil rights icon Dr. Clarence Jones, former advisor and personal counsel to Dr. King, “was made possible by the coalition we had with the American Jewish community.” As many as one-third of the Freedom Riders who travelled to the South during Freedom Summer were Jewish, as were an estimated 90 percent of civil rights lawyers working in the South during that period. Jews figured prominently among the founders of civil rights groups like the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Human Rights, and other important groups. And when Dr. King was falsely accused of tax-evasion, two-thirds of the money raised for his legal defense fund came from Jews.

“The success of the civil rights movement in raising the consciousness of America,” noted civil rights icon Dr. Clarence Jones, former advisor and personal counsel to Dr. King, “was made possible by the coalition we had with the American Jewish community.”

But while the outsized contribution of Jewish-Americans to the advancement of civil rights is well known, much less known is the broader history of solidarity between Jews and African Americans in the struggle for equality, which extends back more than half a century before the civil rights era.

In the late 1800s, the Tsarist regime enacted new discriminatory laws that barred Jews from numerous professions, limited Jewish land ownership, restricted where Jews could live and other bigoted measures. Worse, a wave of pogroms (anti-Jewish mob violence), often encouraged, sanctioned or ignored by the authorities, swept across Eastern Europe devastating Jewish communities in their wake.

The parallel to the treatment of Blacks in the South did not go unnoticed. African American periodicals ran articles illuminating the plight of Jews in Russia, condemning the Russian regime as “the worst form of despotism the world has ever seen.” Though it may seem beyond belief, wrote Timothy Thomas Fortune, a prominent African American journalist who had been born into slavery, the Jewish subjects of the tsar are “treated worse than our people in the South have ever been.”

African Americans took action. Black churches took up collections, raising considerable funds for Jewish relief efforts. They organized rallies on behalf of Russian Jewry and African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, spoke out passionately about the mistreatment of their brothers across the sea.

African American lawyers drafted resolutions calling on the tsar to rescind the discriminatory laws and urged the U.S. government to “offer asylum to these people” if the regime did not act to halt the “indignities and barbarities practiced on the Jews.”

Demonstrating uncommon knowledge of Jewish law, African American ministers spoke out against the Blood Libel that served as the pretext for attacks against Jews. “The blood offered up by the Jews…at the Feast of Passover is the blood of an animal that has been cleansed and purified according to Jewish ceremonies,” explained the Washington Colored American, “the blood of a Christian child could never answer for that purpose.”

Nearly a century later, the Jews of Russia, now subjects of the Soviet regime, still suffered discrimination and persecution, despite the equality promised by Communism. Soviet Jews faced quotas at educational institutions, constraints on employment, and restrictions on Jewish worship and cultural observance. Studying Hebrew or expressing Zionist sentiments was considered subversive activity and could earn one a stay in a Siberian gulag (work camp).

As before, African Americans joined the struggle to address the plight of their “Jewish brothers across the sea.” Prominent leaders of the civil rights era who had fought alongside their Jewish allies for the rights of African Americans in the United States, bonded together in solidarity once again under the banner of the Soviet Jewry Movement.

Dr. King, who, along with other U.S. leaders formed the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews, appealed to the conscience of the world on behalf of Soviet Jews: “I can not stand idly by, even though I live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro, and not be concerned about what happens to my brothers and sisters who happen to be Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them happens to me and to you, and we must be concerned…”The struggle of the Negro people for freedom,” wrote King, “is inextricably interwoven with the universal struggle of all peoples to be free from discrimination and oppression. … In the name of humanity I urge that the Soviet government end all the discriminatory measures against its Jewish community.”

“I can not stand idly by, even though I live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro, and not be concerned about what happens to my brothers and sisters who happen to be Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them happens to me and to you, and we must be concerned…

Black Civil Rights icon Bayard Rustin, became a leading voice advocating for aliyah – immigration to Israel – for Soviet Jews who were then barred from leaving the Soviet Union. Rustin worked diligently with Senator Henry Jackson to pass landmark legislation that tied U.S. trade relations with the Soviet Union to its treatment of Jews. The Jackson-Vannick amendment put human rights, for the first time, at the center of international and trade relations.

Born in the Soviet Union under the circumstance enumerated above, I write to you today as a beneficiary of that coalition between Jews and African Americans. Having faced the reality of second class citizenship in the place of my birth, fleeing as a refugee, and growing up as an immigrant religious minority, I, like so many Jews and African Americans who came before me, felt compelled into common cause to secure the rights of all those who are mistreated and marginalized. In the famous words of Emma Lazarus, whose immortal verse graces the Statue of Liberty,

“Until all of us are free, none of us are free.”

As evidenced by recent events, there remains much work yet to be done to achieve true racial equality. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education promised equality in education, Black and Latino students are three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60% of teachers are licensed and certified by the state as their white peers and where advanced science and math classes are severely lacking. Students of color are also three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school (correlated with incarceration later in life) as White students, despite no difference in behavior. Resumes with African-American-sounding names are 50% less likely to garner an interview. And African Americans are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system with higher frequencies of arrest and harsher sentences than Whites for the same crimes. And, for their part, Jews remain among the most likely to be targeted for a hate crime.

As we reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and recall the long history of Jewish-African American solidarity in the struggle for equality, it is incumbent on us to, as Dr. Jones is fond of saying, “take the baton of that glorious, noble and moral coalition” and rededicate ourselves to working in solidarity with one another in that struggle. Now, more than ever.