When Gunnar Jahn awarded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he noted that apart from Mahatma Gandhi, King was the only person in the history of the western world to bring about fundamental social change peacefully.
“I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice,” King said in his acceptance speech. The honor made him Atlanta’s first Nobel Laureate, but that historical moment on its own was not enough to drag that long night of racial injustice into day.
When King returned to Atlanta, he learned that his award had been met with such resistance that nobody planned an award dinner to celebrate his achievement. Potential hosts were concerned that white people, far more accustomed to being served by Black people than honoring them, would refuse to attend. That was when Rabbi Jacob Rothschild and his wife, Janice, sprung into action, galvanizing their network to organize the dinner themselves. More than 1,400 people attended, including former Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Georgia Senator Leroy Johnson and Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan, making King’s award dinner the first integrated event of its kind in Atlanta.
Even a cursory review of the storied relationship between King and other Black freedom fighters and prominent Jewish civil rights leaders yields an abundance of symbolic images, including King and Rabbi Abraham Heschel singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew in front of more than a thousand other rabbis, and black-and-white photographs of Jewish and Black demonstrators interlocking arms as they marched across the Edmund-Pettus Bridge in 1965. As with most coalition narratives, it’s tempting to dwell in the romance of Black-Jewish solidarity. But, of course, the reality contains much more nuance, and understanding that nuance is crucial not only to fully appreciating the work that took place between Black and Jewish civil rights leaders of the past, but to contextualizing the efforts toward Black and Jewish cooperation happening right now.
“There are so many untold stories that I hear that aren’t documented,” said Dr. Shari Rogers, who directed Shared Legacies, a documentary that explores the complexities and impact of Black-Jewish relations during the Civil Rights Movement. “Those who chose to activate their energy and action, to see their own pain in the other and not just have empathy, but to activate it, was significant enough to change the conscience of America.”
Rogers, who is from Michigan, met Clarence B. Jones while visiting the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit years back. Jones was revered for having served as King’s attorney and personal advisor, and for having written some of his speeches. (Jones was also the board chair and CEO of the New York Amsterdam News in 1971.) While reading Jones’s book, What Would Martin Say?, Rogers was struck by his chapter on antisemitism. Jones wrote that King had tasked him with the responsibility to ensure society never forgot the Jewish community’s contributions during the Civil Rights Movement.
Inspired, Rogers interpreted that as her assignment, too, and over time began to make contact with the dozens of people who would appear in Shared Legacies, including Harry Belafonte; Representative John Lewis; pastor and now-Senator Raphael Warnock; and Susanna Heschel, whose father, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, was close friends with King. Many of the subjects still become visibly emotional as they reflect on their justice work from decades past, but even they knew things were not as glossy as the photos might suggest.
Rogers said that after King and Heschel sang “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew at a conservative rabbinical gathering in the Catskills for Heschel’s birthday in 1968, King was interviewed by Rabbi Everett Gendler, who had also marched for civil rights. Gendler invited King to respond to purported antisemitic statements from Black organizers who expressed anti-Israel sentiments, like Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick. Undeterred by the sensitivity of the question, King laid out the complexities of Black-Jewish relations beyond the movement for equality.
“I think this comes into being because the Negro in the ghetto confronts the Jew in two dissimilar roles,” King replied. “On the one hand, he confronts the Jew in the role of being his most consistent and trusted ally in the struggle for justice in the Civil Rights Movement. Probably more than any other ethnic group, the Jewish community has been sympathetic and has stood as an ally to the Negro in his struggle for justice.
“On the other hand, the Negro confronts the Jew in the ghetto as his landlord in many instances. He confronts the Jew as the owner of the store around the corner where he pays more for what he gets.”
For Rogers, the interview exemplifies that “when you have a safe relationship, you can be real,” and that “when you know people have your back, you can also be more honest about what bothers you.”
Those more layered aspects of Black and Jewish civil rights are where history professors Westenley Alcenat and Magda Teter, both of Fordham University in the Bronx, have focused their recent research. The pair created a lecture series called “Black Studies and Jewish Studies in Conversation” in 2021 that they plan to teach again this year.
Perhaps the most recognized expression of this complicated relationship can be found in King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He wrote it after being detained for protesting segregation and learning that eight religious leaders, including one rabbi, had written and co-signed a letter criticizing recent demonstrations, calling them “unwise and untimely,” and urging the Black community to “withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham.”
King was clear and steadfast in his disagreement with the criticism, writing: “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Teter acknowledged that the religious leaders’ criticism likely came from an “anxiety in white society, even among liberals and Jewish intellectuals who were otherwise engaged in civil rights, who were becoming a bit nervous about Black power.” But she also pointed out that “what is sometimes missed is that many of those Jews were in fact refugees from Europe [and the Holocaust], and they had seen how radicalization, from a European perspective, could lead to violence and antisemitism.”
Alcenat added that ultimately, the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities “doesn’t have to be [understood as] permanently antagonistic, but it will be permanently fraught.” He also argued that King was not actually becoming more radicalized at the time. “He was becoming more disappointed.”
Both Alcenat and Teter agreed that there is no “golden age” of Black-Jewish solidarity, but they also emphasize that that’s okay. If given the choice between offering a convenient but flattened version of events and a craggier, more accurate one, there is only one clear option.
That spirit of a moving history—one that is constantly updated with information as it is uncovered to help bring needed context to the current moment—is what inspired Alcenat and Teter to curate the exhibit “Confronting Hate: Racism, Antisemitism, and the Resistance,” currently showing at Fordham University and on view to the public until Jan. 22.
This article was made possible by a grant from Shine A Light, a national initiative dedicated to raising awareness of modern-day antisemitism and encouraging societal change through a shared sense of communal allyship.