“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words more than a half-century ago, not many could envision that America would become that familial-like society.
And while it hasn’t yet, even as Barack Obama finishes his second term as the nation’s first African-American president, King’s words still resonated with those of other faiths. Jews, Muslims and even those in the LGBT community all relate that the civil rights icon had a monumental effect on their lives despite religious, ethnic, race and other differences.
“The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s worldview was very much coincident with that of Islam,” said Wardella Doschek, the secretary of The Muslim Women’s Association of Washington, D.C. “Allah Almighty tells us in the Holy Quran that the best person is neither the Black person nor the white person, but the person who is best in his or her decisions.”
Peter Morgan of the DC Center for the LGBT Community said King’s struggle for equal rights extended to the LGBT community, an assertion seconded by Michael Long, author of “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.”
“King would have been a champion of gay rights today because of his view of Christianity,” Long said.” Dr. King never publicly welcomed gays at the front gate of his beloved community. But he did leave behind a key for them — his belief that each person is sacred, free and equal to all to others.”
Amid the celebration of King’s birthday, American Jews should reflect anew upon the epic struggle he led to free African-Americans from the shackles of bigotry and take pride in the singular role played by the Jewish community in support of King and African-Americans, Rabbi Marc Schneier, the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, wrote an editorial.
“As we await the advent of the new Trump administration, it is more important than ever for our community to reconnect with that uplifting chapter in American history half a century ago,” wrote Schneier, the author of “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community.”
Franz Afraim Katzir, the founding director of Sephardic Heritage in D.C., concurred with Schneier.
“Dr. King’s struggle and vision resonates in very particular ways with our faith and the Sephardic experience,” said Katzir, who’s among the local Jewish leaders calling on unity in King’s name. “Just as many Jews risked their very lives to go to the South in the 1960s in support of our African-Americans brothers and sisters, we must show similar courage and fortitude today and stand up for American Muslims, who’s civil and human rights are under attack.”
The history of the civil rights movement of the 1960s shows vividly that when the civil rights of any community are compromised, Jews feel the responsibility to speak out and take a stand of moral conscience, he said, before referencing King’s own comments regarding 16 rabbis who were arrested in St. Augustine, Florida in 1964 at a protest of Jim Crow segregation.
“Our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood, not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways and often at great personal sacrifice,” King said at the time. “Can we ever express our appreciation to the rabbis who chose to give moral witness with us in St. Augustine?”
King went on to describe the “awful beating” of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland by segregationists in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, that same year and the deaths of two Jewish activists, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who along with the black civil rights worker James Cheney were abducted and murdered in Mississippi.
“It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom — it has been so great,” King said.
King’s work and message transcends faith traditions, and his life is a reminder of the sacrifice, struggle and courage required in pursuit of racial equality, religious freedom and human rights, said Engy Abdelkader, a senior fellow and adjunct professor at the Bridge Initiative, Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
“While President Obama’s ascension to the White House represented a historical milestone, there’s still much work to be done to realize Dr. King’s dream,” Abdelkader said. “For too many members of marginalized communities, it remains a dream frustrated.
“While many of our local and national news headlines often focus on police brutality, and rightfully so, other inequalities — such as in housing, income, education and health care — are often overlooked,” she said. “These realities are American Muslim realities, too.”
Approximately one in three Muslims in the U.S. are African-American, some with ancestors who were brought to U.S. shores in slave ships, Abdelkader said.
Many Muslims confront challenges at work, in school and on the street because of and often exacerbated by multiple aspects of their identities, she said, noting that they also worry about Islamophobic bullying in schools and police brutality while driving.
“And those injustices impact all of us,” Abdelkader said. “It compromises who we are as a nation. It also opens up a psychological space to perpetuate similar, if not worse, infractions against other minorities.
“In the Quran, Muslims are taught that God judges us not by the color of our skin but the condition of our hearts,” she said. “And that’s very much in sync with Dr. King’s life, work and message, too.”