Berger’s Burg: Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the rights of Jewish people

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We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. — Martin Luther King Jr.

On Jan. 18, we will honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most important public figure to emerge from the Deep South in the 20th century. By destroying segregation in his home territory, he redefined the world’s approach to human rights.

I am familiar with King’s life. A few Sundays ago, I worked with Jim Ayers, a former classmate of King’s at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. There was not a day when I did not besiege Ayers with questions about his famous fellow student.

I learned King possessed an iron will, was extremely disciplined and had an undivided dedication to the objectives he was undertaking. These characteristics helped him meet, complete and overcome seemingly impossible tasks. Ayers recalled seeing King, the student, memorize an entire edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and master the meanings of each word in the tome.

“Why did King bother to attempt this seemingly unattainable task?” I asked.

“Because he was preparing himself to become a better speaker, a more literate writer and, above all, to prove that the impossible was possible with a little perseverance and abundance of faith,” Ayers said.

King’s background was unique. He was born in Atlanta, Ga., Jan. 15, 1929, the son of a Baptist minister, and graduated from Morehouse College at 19. Three years later, he earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree at Crozer Theological Seminary and in 1955 was awarded a doctorate at Boston University.

He was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who taught nonviolent and peaceful means to protest evil. It was not long before King was at the forefront of demonstrations challenging practices and customs that violated human rights. He also became involved with injustices in employment, voting, housing, civil rights and individual freedoms. In addition, he read the works of many Jewish writers to compare the tortured history of the Jews with that of his own race.

On April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet ended his life in Memphis, Tenn., at the age of 39. He was shot in that city while leading a nonviolent demonstration of striking sanitation workers.

Nearly 41 years after his assassination, King is still remembered for his courageous stand against inequity. His involvement in the civil rights struggle of African Americans is well known, but did you know he was also a spokesman for many Jewish causes? While King was consumed in the fight to secure full civil rights in this country, he made time to speak out for the rights of Jews.

From the beginning of the movement in the 1960s, to free persecuted Jews living in Russia he publicly sought support for the re-establishment of the “religious and cultural freedom” of all Soviet Jews. In 1967, by telephone hookup, King addressed dozens of “Soviet Jewry” human rights rallies across America. He admonished his fellow Americans not to sit “complacently by the wayside” while Soviet Jews faced possible dissolution of their spiritual and cultural lives.

King’s commitment to an independent Israel was also clear. With Israel threatened by its Arab neighbors, he wrote to the Jewish community that “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontesta­ble.” In addressing a convention of rabbis 10 days before his death, 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.”

He frequently denounced anti-Semitism in this country and abroad by saying, “The segregationists and racists make no distinction between the Negro and the Jew.” He is revered by Jews, who remember his efforts on their behalf.

King’s adoption of these causes was not surprising given his belief that the freedom of African Americans was tied to the universal right of all groups to live in peace, free from discrimination and oppression. This conviction was instrumental in shaping the close relationship between African Americans and Jews that developed during the King years and are still as relevant today as they were then.

King always sensed he was a target for assassination, so he strove to rapidly complete his life’s mission. He hoped people at his grave would say, “Here lived a man whom did his job as if God called him to do it.”

Dr. King, speaking for the good people of the world, your hope was exceedingly fulfilled.

Contact Alex Berger at

Posted 5:41 pm, October 10, 2011
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