Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (c) marches alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (r) in Selma, AL., March 1965. Photo: Courtesy of Clarion Journal.
As Americans prepared for the 50th anniversary on Wednesday of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, the daughter of his closest Jewish colleague paid tribute to the legendary US civil rights leader’s embrace of the Jewish Bible as his main source of inspiration.
“In a week when we are celebrating Passover, it’s all the more important to remember that it was Martin Luther King who made Moses and the Exodus from Egypt the central motif of the civil rights movement,” Prof. Susannah Heschel told The Algemeiner on Tuesday.
Prof. Heschel, who teaches Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, is the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — the Polish-born American rabbi who, in March 1965, famously marched against the segregationist “Jim Crow” laws alongside King in Selma, Alabama.
Had King not been assassinated on April 4, 1968, he and his family would have been guests at the Heschel family’s Passover Seder eight days later, Prof. Heschel recalled.
But ten days before his death, King did address the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism — and was introduced by Rabbi Heschel.
“I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow his way,” Rabbi Heschel said of King.
In his speech to the assembly, King, for his part, hailed Rabbi Heschel as a “truly great prophet.”
In several of his writings and speeches, King depicted the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as both a model and an inspiration for the civil rights movement in the US. “The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go,'” King proclaimed when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. “The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.”
In the speech he delivered the night before his murder — entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” — Dr. King imagined “standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now.”
If, he continued, “the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’ I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.”
Prof. Heschel emphasized that King’s powerful invocation of biblical themes resonated not just with African Americans, but with American Jews too.
“Twenty years after the Shoah (Holocaust), Dr. King gave Jews a sense of pride in being Jewish,” she said.
“He gave us a sense of pride in our Bible,” Heschel continued. “He quoted Amos and Isaiah more than he quoted Jesus. For a Christian preacher, that’s worth noting.”
Heschel also argued that King had rekindled a positive sense of identity among a Jewish generation that was “emotionally and spiritually lost.”
“He gave a lot of young Jews this sense of purpose — that the civil rights movement embodied Jewish values and that by going to the south, they were living the Bible,” she said.
Officials in Memphis said on Tuesday that 75,000 visitors were expected to travel to the city this week to commemorate Dr. King. A major new exhibit, “MLK50: A Legacy Remembered,” will be opened to the public at the National Civil Rights Museum in the city on Wednesday.