The offices of Alpert Jewish Family Service are closed on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday. There are numerous connections between the work of Dr. King and the Jews living in America at the time which include the following:
· Dr. King repeatedly used the Jewish experience as a model of success over oppression.
· A Jewish woman, Esther Brown, in Topeka, Kan., started the lawsuit Brown vs. Board of Education. That 1954 Supreme Court decision put an end to legally mandated racially segregated schools. (Note that the plaintiff Brown was of no relation to the attorney Brown.)
· A group of clergymen known as the Tallahassee 10 were arrested in Tallahassee in 1961 for protesting segregation. Two of those arrested were rabbis from New Jersey.
· Dr. King spoke at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly convention. When he entered the hall, he was greeted by 1,000 rabbis singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew.
· Two-thirds of the white people that participated in the Freedom Rides were Jewish.
In 1958, Dr. King was the featured speaker at the National Biennial Convention of the American Jewish Congress held in Miami Beach. After the thank you’s, he began his speech with these words:
My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.
The story of freedom’s struggle to emerge and root itself in our nation began not in one place, but in several. I would like to mention one of these early incidents quite familiar to you, but not known to many Americans.
In the first week of September 1654, 23 Jewish refugees from the Portuguese Inquisition arrived in New Amsterdam on board the sailing ship, the St. Charles. This was the first ship of Jews to reach the new world as a community, though Jews were members of the crew of Christopher Columbus. Peter Stuyvesant, in a document which he described as “friendly”, asked that these “hateful enemies and blasphemers” get out of the new world. The history of America might have been different had these 23 Jews retreated with a beaten spirit. Instead, they peacefully and in dignity asserted their moral and political right to remain to settle as equals and to contribute to the building of a new society. As the history of all ages teaches us, no autocrat can dismember or destroy an unfolding truth; and Peter Stuyvesant, with his powerful authority, was ultimately defeated by these 23 determined Jews, who remained and became a responsible part of New Amsterdam.
The governor of Arkansas in this day faced nine Negro school children with the same bigotry and distrust as the hate-filled Peter Stuyvesant. They, too, will resist and win against all odds and thereby enlarge the democratic vistas of our nation in the same glowing traditions as the Jews of the St. Charles. Thus three hundred years apart two struggles for democracy were waged as America still strives to “proclaim liberty throughout the world”.
Later in the speech, Dr. King references the story of the New Amsterdam Jews:
Like the 23 Jews on the St. Charles, Negroes do not propose to re-embark and sail away because a few misguided bigots order us to do so. We say, as they did, that the vast majority of people are truly ready to open the doors of opportunity and will do so if permitted to express their will.
Three months after this speech a synagogue in Midtown Atlanta was bombed, allegedly by antisemites that objected to the Rabbi’s support of the civil rights movement. (Arrests were made but no one was ever convicted for the bombing.) Seven years later, Dr. King was invited to speak at a dinner in Atlanta honoring him that was planned by the very same Rabbi. At that dinner, Dr. King said these words:
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in the Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go.’ This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in our country is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. Something within has reminded the Negro of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained.
MLK Day is recognized as an official day of service and celebrates the civil rights leader’s life and legacy. I will be volunteering in the community as part of our Federation’s MLK Day of Service. I am so pleased to be able to do this and look forward to continuing this new tradition for many years to come.
I am thankful that I live in a country that celebrates the work that our Agency does, working together to care for and improve the lives of others.