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Berger’s Burg: Jews found champion in Martin Luther King

We will celebrate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 17. He was the most important public figure to emerge from the Deep South during the 20th century. King was not simply a regional figure, but a worldwide one as well. By fighting and destroying segregation in his home territory, he redefined the world's approach to human rights.I happen to be quite familiar with King's life. More than a few Sundays ago, a co-worker of mine, Jim Ayer, had been a classmate of King at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. Because of that, I besieged poor Jim constantly with questions about his famous fellow student. Our discussions gave me a wonderful insight into King's persona.Jim told me that King possessed an iron will, was very disciplined and had an undivided dedication to the objectives he was undertaking. These characteristics helped him meet, complete, and overcome seemingly impossible tasks. In addition, King's tenacity was awe-inspiring.He remembered seeing King in his college room, wading through an entire Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, page by page, word by word, memorizing the definition of every one. Alphabetically and systematically, King mastered the meanings of all of them.When Jim asked why he did this, King simply replied that he was preparing himself to become a better speaker, a more literate writer, and above all, to prove that the impossible is possible with a little perseverance and an abundance of faith. Quite a man was this Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.King was born in Atlanta, Ga. on Jan. 15, 1929. The son of Baptist ministers, he graduated from Morehouse College at the age of 19.Three years later, he earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree at Crozer Theological Seminary, and in 1955 he was awarded a Ph.D. at Boston University.He was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, the former leader of India, who taught non-violent and peaceful means to protest evil. King borrowed and transformed Gandhi's tradition of protest. It wasn't long before he was in the forefront of demonstrations challenging practices and customs that violated human rights. He became involved with injustices in employment, voting procedures, housing, civil rights, and individual freedoms. King also read the works of many Jewish writers to compare the tortured history of the Jewish people with that of his own race.King always tried to bring people together. Togetherness and love for one another was his theme. Tragically, on April 4, 1968, an assassin's bullet ended his life in Memphis, Tenn., at the age of 39. Ironically, he was shot while in that city to lead a non-violent demonstration of striking sanitation workers.It is nearly 37 years after his assassination, but King is still remembered. His involvement in the civil rights struggle of African-Americans is well known. But, he also championed many Jewish causes and was a major advocate on their behalf. This piece of history has not been fully told. While King was consumed in the fight to secure full civil rights in this country, he found the time to speak out for the rights of Jews at critical moments.From the beginning of the movement in the 1960's to free persecuted Jews living in Russia, King was a major advocate on their behalf. He publicly sought support for the re-establishment of the "religious and cultural freedom" of all Soviet Jews. He urged the Soviet government "to end all discriminatory measures against its Soviet Jewry."In 1967, by telephone hookup, King addressed dozens of "Soviet Jewry" human rights rallies across America. He implored his fellow-Americans not to sit "complacently by the wayside" while their Jewish brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union faced the possible dissolution of their spiritual and cultural life.King's commitment to a secure and independent Israel was also clear. With Israel threatened by its Arab neighbors, he wrote to Jewish community leaders that "Israel's right to exist as a state in security is incontestable." In addressing a convention of rabbis just 10 days before his death in 1968, the Nobel Peace laureate referred to Israel as "one of the great outposts of democracy in the world," and said, "We must stand with all our might to protect Israel's territorial integrity and its right to exist."King frequently denounced anti-Semitism in this country and abroad. He said, "The segregationists and racists make no distinction between the Negro and the Jew." In a letter to Jewish leaders, he wrote "I will continue to oppose anti-Semitism because it is immoral and self-destructive." King is revered by the Jewish people who remember his powerful efforts on their behalf.In retrospect, King's adoption of these causes was not surprising given his belief that the freedom of African-Americans (and Jews) was inextricably tied to the universal right of all groups to live in peace, free from discrimination and oppression. This belief, exemplified by King's extraordinary leadership, was instrumental in shaping the close relationship between African-Americans and Jews that developed during the King years and included cooperation in campaigns to end discrimination in housing and to improve educational opportunities.His beliefs are just as relevant today as they were in his time. As we must actively strive to reduce intolerance, we must also strive to rededicate ourselves to King's vision of a society "where people are judged not by the color of their skin or by their religion, but by the content of their character." During our current world crisis, we must commit ourselves to work toward achieving King's dream.King sensed he was a target for assassination, and strived to complete his life's mission. At his death, he wished people at his graveside would say: "Here lived a man who did his job as if God Almighty called him at this particular time in history to do it."Dr. King, on behalf of all the good people of the world, your wish has been fulfilled."Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!"Reach columnist Alex Berger at or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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