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January 13, 2005 - Image 28

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2005-01-13

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Dr. King And The Jews


As our nation prepares to
mark the Martin Luther King
Jr. federal holiday on Jan. 17,
it behooves the Jewish community to
take this opportunity to re-tell the
story of this brave man's fight for his
people's freedom.
If that sounds reminiscent of
Passover, it should. Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr., one of the greatest
moral voices of our time, helped lead
his people out from under the bur-
den of state-sponsored racism and
exclusion. The civil rights story, and
the role the Jews of America played
in it, should be told and re-told in
each generation, as the struggle con-
At a time when the distinctions
between right and wrong in regard to
providing equal opportunity seem to
be blurring, the words and deeds of
Rev. King bear remembering, and
repeating. A powerful orator and a
man of deep religious conviction and
intellectual fortitude, Martin Luther
King Jr. demonstrated with consis-
tent moral authority his proud and

James Rosenfeld is vice president of the
Bloomfield Township-based American
Jewish Committee-Metropolitan Detroit

part of the same disease. "It
is not only that anti-
Semitism is immoral —
although that alone is
unequivocal support for Israel
enough. It is used to divide
and freedom for Soviet Jewry.
and Jew, who have
He spoke out against instances
effectively collaborated in
of black anti-Semitism. He
the struggle for justice," he
found inspiration for his own
moral code in Jewish history,
After riots in 1964 dam-
ethics and teachings.
Jewish-owned business
Of Zionism, Dr. King said,
York City and
"Zionism is nothing less than
Rochester, N.Y., Dr. King
the dream and ideal of the
penned "Of Riots and
Jewish people returning to live
Wrongs Against Jews" for
in their own land."
the Southern Christian Leadership
Just 10 days before his assassina-
Conference (SCLC) newsletter. "As
tion, Dr. King told the Rabbinical
a group, the Jewish citizens of the
Assembly of America, "I see Israel,
United States have always stood for
and never mind saying it, as one of
freedom, justice and an end to big-
the great outposts of democracy in
otry. Our Jewish friends have
the world, and a marvelous example
of what can be done, how desert land demonstrated their commitment to
the principle of tolerance and broth-
almost can be transformed into an
erhood in tangible ways, often at
oasis of brotherhood and democracy.
great personal sacrifices... It would be
Peace for Israel means security and
impossible to record the contribution
that security must be a reality."
that the Jewish people have made
Dr. King lent his voice to the
toward the Negro's struggle for free-
Soviet Jewry struggle. "In the name
— it has been so great."
of humanity, I urge that the Soviet
people were brought to
government end all the discriminato-
America in chains," Dr. King once
ry measures against its Jewish com-
told a Jewish gathering. "Your people
munity. I will not remain silent in
were driven here to escape the chains
the face of injustice," Dr. King said.
fashioned for them in Europe. Our
Dr. King saw a common struggle
unity is born of our common strug-
for Jews and African Americans
for centuries, not only to rid our-
against bigotry and hate. To him,
selves of bondage, but make oppres-
anti-Semitism and racism were both

A Forgotten Black-Jewish Alliance


or many in the American
Jewish community, Martin
Luther King Jr.'s birthday is
an occasion to recall the important
role that Jews played in the civil
rights movement of the 1950s-1960s.
But few remember the earlier alliance
between Jews and prominent African
Americans, in the 1940s, on the
issues of rescuing Jews from the
Holocaust and creating a Jewish
This forgotten black-Jewish alliance
was connected to a series of political
action campaigns undertaken in the
1940s by an activist group led by
Peter Bergson, a Zionist emissary
from Jerusalem. The group's efforts
won the support of a wide array of




Dr. Medoff is director of the David S.
Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa.
His e-mail address is

members of Congress, Hollywood
celebrities and intellectuals, including
numerous prominent African
The Bergson group was initially
known as the Committee for a Jewish
Army. From 1940 to 1943, it sought
the creation of a Jewish armed force
that would fight alongside the Allies
against the Nazis.
Black labor union leader A. Philip
Randolph, president of the
International Brotherhood of Sleeping
Car Porters, was an early backer of
Bergson's Jewish army effort. So was
W.E.B. DuBois, the leading African-
American intellectual of his era.
Eventually, the British agreed to
establish the 5,000-man force, known
as the Jewish Brigade. It fought with
distinction on the European battle-
field in 1945, and many of its veter-
ans later took part in Israel's 1948
War of Independence.
When news of the mass murder of
Europe's Jews reached the West in
1942-1943, Bergson created the

Emergency Committee to Save
the Jewish People of Europe,
to press the Roosevelt adminis-
tration to rescue Jewish

sion of any people by others an
It is fortunate that the words of
Dr. King are not hard to come by,
and thanks to the Internet, one can
easily view his many public appear-
ances. One address, at the May 1965
annual meeting of the American
Jewish Committee, where Dr. King
was honored with the AJC's
American Liberties Medallion, can be
heard on the AJC Web site,
Listen to his words that emphasize
our mutual concerns. Hear his voice
as it continues to inspire. TI

The AJCommittee-Metropolitan
Detroit Chapter and the Detroit
Urban League will commemorate
and remember the Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.'s life and work, 8
a.m., Monday, Jan. 17. Open to
the community, the "All Peoples"
breakfast will be held at the
Detroit Urban League, 208 Mack
Avenue at John R in Detroit.
This year will mark the 10th
anniversary of this cooperative
effort. Reservations are necessary
and there is no charge. Call the
AJCommittee at (248) 646-7686
or the Detroit Urban League at
(313) 832-4600.

was one of the stars of a
Madison Square Garden
"Show of Shows" organized
by Bergson in 1944 to raise
money for his campaign to
rescue Jewish refugees.
Bergson Backers
The Emergency
Committee's dramatic tactics
Two of the most famous
African American authors of
DR. RAFAEL included full-page newspaper
that period, Langston Hughes
ads, a march by over 400 rab-
bis to the White House just
and Zora Neale Hurston, were
sponsors of the Bergson
Commentary before Yom Kippur, and a
group's July 1943 Emergency
Congressional resolution urg-
Conference to Save the Jewish
ing creation of a U.S. govern-
People of Europe.
ment agency to rescue
The conference, which was held in
New York City, sought to counter the
These efforts embarrassed the
Roosevelt administration's claim that
administration and compelled FDR to
rescuing Jews from Hitler was physi-
establish the War Refugee Board,
cally impossible.
which helped save an estimated
More than 1,500 delegates lis-
220,000 lives during the final 15
tened to panels of experts on trans-
months of the Holocaust.
portation, relief methods, military
After the war, Bergson turned his
affairs, and other fields, discussing
attention to the cause of creating a
specific, practical ways to save Jews
Jewish national homeland. He estab-
from the Holocaust. One of the
lished the Hebrew Committee of
speakers was Walter White, execu-
National Liberation and the American
tive director of the NAACP. In addi-
League for a Free Palestine, which
tion, the famous black singer, actor,
played an important role in mobiliz-
and political activist Paul Robeson
ing American public support for the

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