Newly Unearthed Letter Shows How Martin Luther King Jr. Enlisted Martin Buber in Apartheid Struggle

Experts say its no surprise civil rights leader reached out to the Jewish philosopher on South Africa, given that King quoted Bubers I and Thou principle in a famed prison letter

Martin Luther King Jr. and Martin Buber
Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty Images / AP

Martin Luther King Jr. helped recruit Jewish philosopher Martin Buber to the early struggle against apartheid in South Africa, recently unearthed Israeli archival documents show.

In a letter dated August 15, 1957 – co-signed by the black civil rights leader whose life is being commemorated in the United States on Monday – Buber was urged to join a group of world leaders in signing a declaration of conscience and helping sponsor a day of protest against the racist regime in the African state.

Austria-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. MLK had a dream of recruiting him to the anti-apartheid cause in the 1950s.
Universal History Archive / UIG

The letter, obtained by Haaretz, was found in the Martin Buber Archive at the National Library of Israel.

Escaping Nazi persecution, the Austrian-born philosopher immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine in 1937, where he joined the faculty of the Hebrew University.

He was considered to have been a major influence on King. In his April 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail – a key document of the American civil rights movement – King cited Bubers famous I and Thou principle to denounce segregation and relegating persons to the status of things.

The letter urging Buber to join the fight against apartheid was also signed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady and civil rights activist, and James Pike, a prominent but controversial Episcopal bishop known for his progressive views.

All three signatories were leaders of the American Committee on Africa, an organization established in 1953 to support liberation movements in Africa. King served as its vice chairman.

We are writing to you in the conviction that the time has come for a world-wide protest against the organized inhumanity of the Government of the Union of South Africa, King, Roosevelt and Pike wrote in the letter, which was sent to an address in Munich where Buber held an academic position at the time.

We have watched with great concern the relentless pursuit of official racism (apartheid) by the South African Government. It has defied the most elemental considerations of human decency in its treatment of African and Asian citizens, loosely called non-whites. Our concern has turned to horror as we have learned of the treatment of these non-white South Africans and the extension of totalitarian control into almost every area of human life, they continued.

The second page of the letter to Buber by Martin Luther King Jr, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bishop James Pike, dated August 15, 1957.
National Library of Israel, Martin Buber Archive

Noting that South Africas organized inhumanity had not sparked any major protests around the world, the authors of the letter lamented: It is as if we have forgotten that the bell tolls for humankind in South Africa too.

At the time the letter was written, the authors noted, 156 leaders of the opposition in South Africa were being tried for treason because they desire a democratic, multi-racial society.

We are obliged to record our protest, they wrote, in the hope that the Government of South Africa will respond to moral suasion.

A follow-up letter to Buber, also housed in the National Library of Israel, indicates he accepted the invitation of the U.S. civil rights leaders. Dated October 14, 1957, and signed by Roosevelt alone, Buber is thanked in the letter for lending his support to the anti-apartheid movement. Sent to his Jerusalem address, the letter notes that representatives of 38 countries had by then signed the declaration of conscience.

I am sure that those South Africans of good-will who, despite the dangers to their lives, liberty and fortunes, continue to work for justice and freedom will be gratified by your demonstration of support and sympathy, Roosevelt – who served as international chair of the American Committee on Africa – wrote him.

A bust of Martin Luther King Jr. is pictured in Selma, Alabama, U.S., December 17, 2017.
\ CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

Commenting on the letters, National Library of Israel archival expert Dr. Stefan Litt said it was not surprising Buber would be recruited by King to join the anti-apartheid movement. It is the sort of thing that fit well with his other public activities, Litt noted. He was not only a famous philosopher of his time, but also known for providing advice on how human beings could live better together in this world. He would not have missed a chance to be part of such a movement.

Prof. Zohar Segev, from the department of Jewish history at the University of Haifa, said it was natural for King to reach out to a Jew of Bubers stature, since Jews were already known to be active in the civil rights movement in the United States.

Lets remember that this letter was written at a time when Israel was known for developmental assistance to Africa – before it had forged military ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa, he said. So thats another reason he might have tried to interest Buber in this cause.