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‘Brotherhood Cannot Be a Theory’

A Jewish look at Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Adam Chandler
January 18, 2013
Screengrab(The King Center)
Screengrab(The King Center)

One theory about why a fissure developed between African-Americans and Jewish Americans has to do with Dr. Martin Luther King’s isolation from the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s. As a fixture that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jewish leaders and spoke openly of his love for equality, when MLK was outshouted by other leaders who (to put it lightly) indulged in less than progressive commentaries about Jews, parts of the Jewish community turned away.

But before this happened, the knit was tight. One such example was the South’s first racially integrated banquet, which was held in Atlanta and organized in large part by Rabbi Jacob Rothschild in 1965. The occasion was to honor MLK, who’d just returned from Oslo after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

A number of different religious leaders attended and spoke, including MLK and Rabbi Rothschild. From one paragraph of Rothchild’s speech, you can read the soaring language and perhaps wonder who influenced whom in the great orations of that era.

In Jewish lore there is a legend of Adam as he faced the approaching night of his first day on earth. Darkness–the first darkness he had ever known–was about to envelop of the world–and he was afraid. For how was he to know that night and day were ordained to follow one another for all eternity, that God in His first creative act had decreed that “there be light”–and indeed, had looked upon it and called it “good?” For Adam, this menacing dark might well blot out forever that radiant sun whose rays had brightened and warmed his day of life.

For the rest of the speech, plus MLK’s remarks, all digitally preserved on the yellowing pages of the Southern Israelite publication, check out the Dream Center’s archives here.

And, of course, below is Stevie Wonder’s tribute to MLK, the song “Happy Birthday,”which helped to popularize the initially unpopular movement to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.