As ADL, commemorating our centennial in 2013, looks back on 100 years of progress in this country in the battles against racism and anti-Semitism, the observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday this year has particular relevance.
First, the King holiday reminds us of two significant anniversaries surrounding the civil rights leader. It is the 50th anniversary of his historic “I Have A Dream” speech at the mall on Washington. And it is the 20th anniversary of all 50 states in the union observing the holiday.
Second, while leading the monumental struggle for civil rights in this country, Dr. King never equivocated in denouncing anti-Semitism.
He stated bluntly at one point that “The segregationist and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jews.” And in a letter to Jewish leaders just months before his death Dr. King stated; “I will continue to oppose it (anti-Semitism) because it is immoral and self-destructive.”
This is a message that remains terribly important for the country at-large -- it is never enough for Jews and Jewish organizations to condemn anti-Semitism. Important leaders from all communities must do so.
More specifically, Dr. King’s condemnation of anti-Semitism was and is important for his own African-American community where, for too long, levels of anti-Semitic attitudes are too high and where some African-American cultural figures utter sentiments about Jews and Jewish power that remain very troubling.
Not only, however, did Dr. King react against blatant anti-Semitism, but early on he anticipated the more sophisticated versions. In an appearance at Harvard, Dr. King responded to a hostile question about Zionism (as reported by the scholar Seymour Martin Lipset in his book, “The Socialism of Fools”): “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews; you are talking anti-Semitism.”
Third, Dr. King understood the importance of standing up for other minorities, both as a value and to strengthen support for his work on behalf of African-Americans. Perhaps Dr. King’s greatest legacy was his conviction that justice for Black people could not be achieved in a vacuum -- but rather that all Americans must live free from oppression in order to guarantee freedom. Why, we at ADL were often asked, was civil rights for African-Americans so important to us. Because it was the right thing to do, and because it was good for all and built coalitions in fighting all forms of prejudice.
Fourth, he knew that power politics were important to bring change. Speeches, marches, demonstrations, and sit-ins were all about that. 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. This too is a basic tenet of ADL, where exposing the haters and insisting that good people stand up is crucial. But in the long run changing hearts and minds through education and appealing to the best instincts of America is the real solution.
Fifth, the civil rights revolution that he led also further opened up America for Jews and is one of the key elements as to why today American Jews are the freest community 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 exclusion of Jews. Even more so, the revolution changed society in a way that being different and expressing one’s differences was no longer a liability.
At ADL, we say that our dual mission over these 100 years -- fighting anti-Semitism and working for equality for all -- is consistent with the values expressed by the Jewish Sage Hillel two thousand years 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 Martin Luther King’s values. Too often in society today we stray from them. This 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech is a good time to recommit to those things that brought us all together.