By Jonathan Greenblatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League
This blog originally appeared on Medium
Today, we mark the 87th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It also has been just over 180 days since I took the helm of the Anti-Defamation League(ADL), an organization founded more than 100 years ago in pursuit of a dream that MLK labored to achieve his entire life: to fight bigotry and create a more just society. MLK and ADL shared a path that today seems perhaps even more intertwined than ever before.
ADL was created in October 1913, forged in the crucible of anti-Semitism. Our founders sought to rid the world of that age-old scourge even as they equally endeavored to drive an agenda of civil rights and social justice. MLK was born 16 years later, and he matured into a civil rights leader in the 1950s, dedicating himself to exposing the brutality of the Jim Crow South and dismantling its discriminatory system of institutionalized racism and oppression.
ADL supported MLK and the movement in its earliest days. In 1954, we filed an amicus brief in the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision. Ben Epstein, one of my predecessors who led ADL in the middle of the 20th century, directed the organization to work hand in hand with African American leaders. MLK and Epstein stood together in Selma as Epstein recruited his entire executive team to march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge for that storied march in February 1965. And later, MLK and Epstein again stood side by side in the Rose Garden with President Johnson and Attorney General Kennedy, celebrating the gains of the movement and cementing the Black-Jewish alliance.
In recent years, however, many have lamented of the fraying of the alliance. Divergent interests in the ensuing decades have alienated many in our communities. Some simply have forgotten the history. Others have chosen to subordinate it to other more pressing concerns. But the thing about history is that it always remains, perhaps just under the surface, but it still endures.
In my role as CEO of ADL, I have sought to re-energize that history. Just last month, I led my first “leadership retreat,” bringing together my executive team of professionals and lay leaders. Yet, rather than hunker down near our headquarters in Manhattan, I opted to visit the American South so we could examine the legacy of the alliance that defined the American Civil Rights movement and reflect on our part in it.
We started in Atlanta at Ebenezer Baptist Church, not only where MLK preached and the language of the movement took shape, but the site where we previewed #50StatesAgainst Hate last August in the wake of the Charleston massacre. #50States is a new nationwide effort to ensure comprehensive hate crimes laws are passed in all 50 states so that all people of all backgrounds have the protection that they deserve.
We then traveled to Montgomery and listened to Bryan Stevenson whose landmark work at the Equal Justice Initiative on criminal justice issues and sentencing reform strikes me as some of the most important contemporary work in this field. We spent time in Selma, literally walking the same route across the Edmund Pettis Bridge that MLK, Epstein, and others walked 50 years earlier. Although we faced none of the hatred and violence that confronted those marchers, we were struck by the history of the moment.
Yet the retreat was not intended simply to celebrate our past. It was designed to remind us of the responsibility of the inheritance bequeathed to us by Dr. King and Epstein. It was about climbing that hill of history so that we might root ourselves in our legacy but also to use its vantage point to look out at the horizon at the great challenges that remain before us today. For surely, the work is not done.
As we consider the rising inequality in our country between the rich and the very poor, we know the work is not done. As we consider the contrast between our graduation rates and incarceration rates, we know the work is not done. As we consider the inability of our laws and the failure of our culture to protect all vulnerable groups from discrimination, we know the work is not done. As we observe the coarsening of the public conversation and the rise of extremism, we know our work is not done.
To paraphrase MLK, change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. On this MLK Day, we recommit to the struggle — to straightening our backs and pressing forward with the hard work of stopping the defamation of the Jewish people, stemming the tide of bigotry in all forms, and securing justice and fair treatment to all.