It is particularly fitting that we commemorate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, reassuring us that those who make headlines in the name of religious faith need not be terrorists invoking “Allah,” but rather men and women encouraging each of us to follow a moral path in the image of our Creator.
Dr. King, who was assassinated by a racist at the age of 39, was the conscience of his generation, urging Americans to find their own humanity in recognizing the need for all people to be treated with dignity and fairness.
Peter Geffen, in his Opinion essay on page 20, recalls being inspired as a college student to help end racial discrimination by traveling to the South and encouraging African Americans to register to vote in the mid-1960s. He noted that the words and actions of the theologian and author Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as well, gave him and other young volunteers the courage to do their work despite the risk of violence. (Geffen was a classmate at Queens College of Andrew Goodman, one of three young men murdered in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 for their civil rights efforts.)
Rabbi Heschel, whose yahrtzeit was observed a few weeks ago, marched alongside Dr. King in Selma, Ala., and famously observed: “I felt as if my legs were praying.”
It’s more than a shame that the highly praised new film, “Selma,” omits the presence of the rabbi in its depiction of the march.
As we reflect on Dr. King and his work in preaching civil rights through non-violent means, appealing to the sense of decency in the human spirit, we also recall his still-timely comments about those who have bias toward Israel and Jews.
Confronted by young African Americans who spoke angrily of Jews and Israel, he said: “You declare, my friend, that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely ‘anti-Zionist.’ When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews. Anti-Semitism, the hatred of the Jewish people, has been and remains a blot on the soul of mankind. In this we are in full agreement. So know also this: anti-Zionist is inherently anti-Semitic, and ever will be so.”
How sad that more than a half-century later, these sentiments still need to be expressed. And how remarkable that Dr. King sought to embrace all victims of prejudice, not just those of his community, in his message of equality.
May his memory be a blessing.