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From the archives: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship with the Jewish community is oft-cited and usually lauded. Was it as peaceful and aligned as it is portrayed today? To answer this, we turned to the IJN archive to see how, in real time, what relations were like between Jews and Dr. King and, more broadly, between Jews and the civil rights movement.

Articles about Martin Luther King, Jr. in the IJN in the years, clockwise from upper left: 1964, 1960, 1967, 1965.

What we found was that overall there was strong synergy between blacks and Jews and that the Jewish community, both local and national, strongly supported civil rights for blacks.

One effort was monetary. Michael Kaufmann, associated with the OU, set up an organization to collect funds from Jews to support King’s work.

Regular news items appeared in the IJN announcing a Dr. King talk at the Littleton church. Another relayed King’s plans to visit Israel with A. Philip Randolph, the civil and labor rights leader. No surprise: Their joint trip was sponsored by Histadrut, Israel’s labor union. (Some may not be aware that Randolph was the main organizer of the March on Washington where King delivered his famed “I have a dream” speech. In another item, this one as early as 1960, King shares that “In the Jew, the Negro has found a great champion of civil rights.” In the same piece, King “discredits” the Nation of Islam black supremacist and anti-Semitic group, today led by Louis Farrakhan. King was twice a guest on IJN Publisher Max Goldberg’s TV interview show “On the Spot,” broadcast on KLZ.

Yet it is worth noting that as the 1960s progressed and the movement developed a radical wing, Jewish support became more uncertain. Especially after rioting took place following Dr. King’s assassination, some Jews, especially business owners, became more equivocal. One Holocaust refugee said the “burning and looting” reminded him of “the Crystal Night [Kristallnacht].” Financial support also tapered off. Jews were also part of white flight, the socio-economic phenomenon that saw white families depart neighborhoods as they became integrated.

There are surely lessons to be learned here, particularly because once again, Jewish-black relations are under some strain. There are essays from civil rights activist Bayard Rustin delving into black anti-Semitism (which he forcefully condemns) but attempting to explain “how ghetto turns love to hate.” There are editorials calling for pushing ahead with the civil rights agenda in the wake of Dr. King’s death. A few months later, reflecting on a year that saw King and Robert Kennedy killed, there is an op-ed from the US Air Force Academy chaplain calling for “a passionate search for what is morally right with a concomitant willingness for personal commitment to the moral decision.”

While this is but an oh-so-brief overview of the IJN’s coverage of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, it certainly shows that the issue of racial equality has always been part of the fabric of American Jewry. If you’d like to delve deeper, the search term we used was “Martin Luther King.”

This online feature explores the IJN’s new digital archive, discovering the news of the week, years ago.

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