Commentary: Dr. King found an unlikely ally in Rabbi Heschel

One of the great skills of Martin Luther King Jr. was his ability to search out allies to achieve his goals. He did not restrict himself to the left or right, Republican or Democrat, which was part of his genius. In constructing his coalition he appealed to all people of conscious. It was a skill that America desperately needs today.

At first the alliance between the Rev. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel might seem unimaginable, but a closer examination would demonstrate similarities of background and personality. Rev. King’s father was a minister, while Abraham Joshua Heschel’s father was a rabbi. Their moral strength and religious-toned oratory reflected the heritage of the pulpit. Even more important, both had experienced the sometimes casual and other times murderous hatred of bigotry. For Dr. King it was the segregated South; for Heschel, the hell that was Hitler’s Germany.

King knew that one key constituency he needed to reach was the religious community, but understood that would not be easy. There was no history in this country of religion mobilized and united for such an objective. For all intents and purposes, American communities of faith had divided on geographical lines during the Civil War, and disgracefully sat out the Armenian, Ukrainian and Jewish holocausts (and others) in our own century.

In addition, respected theologians such as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, both prominent in the 50s and 60s, generally ignored issues of social injustice in favor of a vague concept of inner salvation. One minister, reflecting this view, argued that “the job of the minister is to lead the souls of men, not to bring about confusion by getting tangled up in transitory social problems.”

Another more activist orientation was needed. The opportunity to change hearts and souls occurred in 1963 at a conference on “Religion and Race” organized by the National Council of Christians and Jews, which was where Heschel and King first met. King was characteristically brilliant in his remarks:

The churches and synagogues have an opportunity and a duty to lift up their voices like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. We must affirm that every human life is a reflex of divinity, and every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man. The undergirding philosophy of segregation is diametrically opposed to the undergirding philosophy of our Judeo-Christian heritage, and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them lie down together.

But it was Abraham Joshua Herchel’s uncompromising speech that inflamed the audience. His remarks are too long to quote here in its entirety and can be found on the internet, but a few passages are particularly noteworthy:

“Perhaps this conference should be called ‘Religion Or Race.’ You cannot worship God and at the same time look at a man as if he was a horse.”

“What is an idol? A God who is mine and not yours. Any God concerned with me and not you is an idol.”

“One hundred years ago today the emancipation was proclaimed. It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry.”

“In the words of Thomas Jefferson, ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.’”

Heschel’s speech went on to quote the Old Testament (the Tanach), especially the Book of Exodus and the prophets. Today that influential speech is largely forgotten. Cornell West called Rabbi Heschel’s speech “The strongest white condemnation of racism since William Lloyd Garrison.” Among the activists who at one time or another admitted that they carried Heschel’s speech in their back pocket at marches and sit-ins were Andrew Young, James Lawson, Vincent Harding, C. T. Vivian, and Bayard Rustin.

Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel became fast friends. Their pictures together crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge arm in arm in March 1965; and standing together outside Arlington Cemetery in silent protest of the Vietnam War in 1968 are today considered classic.

Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged the importance of religious leaders and minorities working together. King roundly denounced anti-Semites who unfairly spread falsehoods and singling out the one Jewish state for censure — while ignoring the far worse crimes around the world. As the Rev. King once said:

“I solemnly pledge to uphold the fair names of Jews. Not only because we need their friendship, which we do, but mainly because bigotry in any form is an affront to all.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was fond of referring to Moses and bondage died in 1972. He would have noted, I believe, a particular pertinent and prophetic Exodus passage. Before the Jews suffered oppression in Egypt “a new generation arose, who knew not Joseph,” — the alliance of Heschel and King — and denounced the Jews. Sadly, there is little effort today to emulate King’s success in standing up for what is right, avoid partisanship and to reach out to the best of Middle America.

Larry Koch, EdD is a resident of Magnolia and chairs the History Book Club. To learn more about largely forgotten or misjudged historical people, come to the Dover Public Library’s History Book Club on Thursday at 4 p.m. for “Persons of Interest.” Contact him at for comments or questions about the program.

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