On June 16, 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy accepting an invitation to attend a meeting of religious leaders to discuss the growing racial tensions in the country. It read in part:
“Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church and Synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
Many of my peers grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Pre-1960 we knew two primary facts about World War II: millions of Jews and others had been killed, and good people all over Europe looked the other way. As the civil rights struggle began to fill our television screens with footage of confrontations between hate-filled violent white people and idealistic non-violent blacks, we young Jews made the obvious connection without ever being instructed to do so.
But we were inspired to do so by a rabbi and a minister who were giants of the spirit. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel told us: “A hundred years ago the emancipation was proclaimed. It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry.” The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King told us: “The time is always ripe to do right.”
It was now our turn to stand up and be counted. Now we were being called to the ultimate test. Would we put our lives on the line to help end discrimination and violence against African-Americans, or would we become the “good Germans” of our time and simply look the other way?
The advancement of civil rights in America took place in the legislatures and courts of the United States, but it began in the streets of Selma and Montgomery with everyday citizens standing up for what was right and civil. Leadership in the people’s struggle came from Dr. King, for whom I was privileged to work in the summers of 1965 and ’66 in Orangeburg, S.C. As young Jews, my friends and I were as moved spiritually by hearing King preach in a Baptist church as by Heschel speaking at public rallies for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. We witnessed him marching with Dr. King at the front of the line of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. When Heschel returned to New York he told us, “I felt as if my legs were praying.” We knew where we belonged.
Being a civil rights worker was not without risk, and my classmate at Queens College, Andy Goodman, was one of the three boys lynched in the summer of 1964. Rabbi Heschel’s inspiring words lifted us up and gave form to our innocent youthful spirit. He removed the fear from our hearts.
In this universal arena of civil rights he mixed the religious and secular worlds in his thoughts and spoken word. “That equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted, what is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality.” He found original ways to express the link between Judaism and the civil rights struggle: “God is every man’s pedigree. He is either the Father of all men or no man. The image of God is either in every man or in no man.”
The struggle for civil and human rights remains a poignant and demanding one all over the world. The lesson of the American civil rights movement is that “We Shall Overcome!” and it is taught to and understood by children and adults across the globe. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel set in motion a process that became international in scope and will not end because a new tyrant or tyranny arises to threaten us.
It is, however, a challenge to live in a time without a Heschel and King to guide and focus us. Their parallel teachings in word and deed are remarkable. Heschel’s definition: “A Jew … is a person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.”
King taught: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Heschel’s direction: “‘To be or not to be’ is not the question. How to be and not to be is the question. The true problem is how to survive, what sort of future to strive for. It is the power and the vision of time to come that determines time present.”
King proclaimed: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Heschel’s demand: “Equality is a good thing … what is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality.”
King understood: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” “A right delayed is a right denied.”
The observance of Martin Luther King Day always comes in close proximity to the observance of the traditional yahrtzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the dead of winter, their words speak of spring, of hopefulness, of optimism, of spiritual audacity and moral grandeur.
Peter A. Geffen is founder and executive director, Kivunim, a gap year program in Israel.