For those of us who closely follow progress in the battles against racism and anti-Semitism in America, the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this year has particular relevance.
First, the holiday, which this year is observed on Monday, Jan. 21, reminds us of two significant anniversaries connected to the civil rights leader. It is the 50th anniversary of his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Mall on Washington and the 20th anniversary of all 50 states observing the holiday.
Second, while leading the monumental struggle for civil rights in this country, King never equivocated in denouncing anti-Semitism.
“The segregationist and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jews,” he stated bluntly.
And in a letter to Jewish leaders just months before his 1968 assassination, King said, “I will continue to oppose it [anti-Semitism] because it is immoral and self-destructive.”
The message — that it is never enough for only Jews and Jewish organizations to condemn anti-Semitism — remains terribly important for the country. Leaders from all communities must follow King’s lead.
More specifically, King’s condemnation of anti-Semitism was and is important for his own African American community. For too long, levels of anti-Semitic attitudes have been too high. And some African American cultural figures utter sentiments about Jews and Jewish power that are very troubling.
Not only did King react against blatant anti-Semitism; early on he anticipated the more sophisticated versions. In an appearance at Harvard, as reported by the scholar Seymour Martin Lipset in his book “The Socialism of Fools,” King responded thus to a hostile question about Zionism: “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews; you are talking anti-Semitism.”
Third, King understood the importance of standing up for other minorities both as a value in and of itself, and to strengthen support for his work on behalf of African Americans. Perhaps King’s greatest legacy was his conviction that justice for black people could not be achieved in a vacuum, that all Americans must live free from oppression in order to guarantee freedom for everyone.
Similarly, why was obtaining civil rights for African Americans so important to the American Jewish community? Because it was the right thing to do, it was good for everyone, and it built coalitions to fight all forms of prejudice.
Fourth, King knew that power politics were needed to bring about change: speeches, marches, demonstrations and sit-ins. But he profoundly understood that ultimately, appealing to the moral values, the goodness and long-term interests of those who needed to change — the white majority — was the key to changing society.
In the long run, changing hearts and minds through education and appealing to the best instincts of Americans make up the real solution.
Fifth, the civil rights revolution led by King further opened up America for Jews. It is one of the key reasons why today American Jews are the freest in the 2,000-year history of the diaspora and why things are so much better for Jews today than 60 or 70 years ago. Civil rights legislation allowed Jews to challenge their exclusion from many spheres. Even more, the revolution changed society in a way that being different and expressing one’s differences were no longer liabilities.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in seeking equality for all was consistent with the values expressed by the Jewish sage Hillel two millennia ago: “If I am not for me, who will be?” One must have pride and stand up for one’s own.
“If I am only for myself, what am I?” To be fully human, one must go beyond one’s own problems and stand up for others.
“If not now, when?” Justice delayed is justice denied.
These values were King’s values. This 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech is a good time to recommit to them.
Kenneth Jacobson is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.