MLK and Rabbi Heschel Fought for Civil Rights Together. Their Daughters Say the Struggle Isn't Done

Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) in the March 21, 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. is fourth from right.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) in the March 21, 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. is fourth from right.Credit: AP
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson

The daughters of two heroes of the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement reflected Sunday on the legacy of their fathers’ alliance and friendship, and the urgency of revitalizing their teachings and activism in an America “broken by racism and violence.”

Dr. Bernice A. King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and CEO of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and Prof. Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and chairwoman of the Jewish studies program at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire were participating in a webinar entitled, “Standing Together Against Racism: Building on Our Common Heritage.”

More than 2,500 people across the United States participated in the online seminar, in addition to unknown numbers watching on social media and public access TV. The event was organized by the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and a community organization called Burque (a nickname for “Albuquerque”) Against Racism; it was sponsored by the Albuquerque Community Foundation and the Bank of America. The moderator was Rabbi Capers Funnye, Jr., who leads Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation and is chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis.

Organizers, speakers and moderators in the "Standing Together Against Racism: Building on Our Common Heritage" webinar, on January 24, 2021.Credit: Courtesy of Mike Silva

Rabbi Rob Lennick, executive director of the Federation, told Haaretz in a pre-webinar interview that he and his friend and colleague, Mike Silva, co-founder of Burque Against Racism, were recently discussing how the friendship between King and Heschel symbolized the alliance between Jews and Blacks in the 1960s.

“But after King’s assassination in 1968 and Heschel’s death in 1972,” Lennick said, “that alliance fell apart. Now, America is broken by racism, violence and social unrest, and yet, at the same time, we have a sense of hope because of our new government. And so we thought that perhaps the daughters of these two great men could help our communities reunite and move forward again, together.”

The two women referred to each other as “sister” during the Zoom event. King, who was only 5 years old when her father was killed, explained the significance of their friendship, both for the two men personally and for their country.

Dr. Bernice A. King. Of her father and Rabbi Heschel, she said: "Both were leaders who merged their religion and ecumenical approach, and this was key to bringing about substantial change."Credit: Courtesy of Mike Silva

“Daddy was facing all the suffering, pain, hostility and anguish of those years, and the two men supported each other. Both of them were leaders of conscience, who merged their religion and ecumenical approach, and this was key to bringing about substantial change,” said 57-year-old King, who has a doctorate in law and is devoting her life to perpetuating the doctrine of nonviolence propounded by her father and her mother, Coretta Scott King.

Studying the Bible together

Heschel, 64, a prolific scholar whose expertise is German Jewish history, recalled: “My father came to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1940. There, the Bible was banned and the commonalities between Judaism and Christianity were denied. To see Rev. King holding the Bible gave us back some of our pride. The two men studied the Bible together and it helped us to restore our souls after the Holocaust.”

Prof. Susannah Heschel. "If we deny the humanity of another human being, then we are denying God. And if we deny God, we cannot pray.”Credit: Courtesy of Mike Silva

Fennye stated that the violent attack by pro-Trump demonstrators on the Capitol on January 6 – which he referred to as “an abject expression of hatred against people of color and the Jewish people” – added an increased sense of urgency to finding ways for all Americans “to unite against racism and to create a holy alliance of loving people.”

The moderator also spoke about the importance of launching a truth and reconciliation process such as was conducted in South Africa to shed light publicly on gross human rights abuses during the era of apartheid. King responded by relating to her father’s teachings and life-long dedication to the path of nonviolence, which, she emphasized, must extend beyond the achievement of what he called negative peace – that is, the absence of violence – to a commitment to justice.

“We cannot just move on to reconciliation without accountability,” King added, stressing that action must be taken to ensure that former President Donald Trump is taken to task for the events on January 6 and for inciting violence and hatred: “We cannot just let bygones be bygones. We don’t want to be so intent on getting to reconciliation that we bypass justice, and part of that is accountability.

Moreover, added Heschel, “there must be reparations – without reparations, there can be no justice.”

Education toward racial and social justice is crucial today, King, Heschel and Fennye agreed. Noting that there are many who do not remember the 1960s and do not chose to learn about the institutionalized racial injustice that has pervaded American history, King observed that “my daddy said that there is nothing more dangerous than conscientious stupidity and sincere ignorance. We have not educated ourselves out of race. We must educate our youth.

“Yes, there is a pandemic,” she continued, “but God is allowing this for a reason. He has closed the churches and the mosques and the synagogues, and now we really have to think what it means to be a person of faith…We are facing a serious threat, and another sermon isn’t going to get us out of it. Everything that we have preached about, now must become manifested in our culture. We must create what he [her father] called the love community.”

Heschel recalled that her father had often said that, because human beings were created in the image of God, “if we deny the humanity of another human being, then we are denying God. And if we deny God, we cannot pray.”

The election last month of an African American, Raphael Warnock, and a Jew, Jon Ossof, in the run-off senatorial elections in Georgia added a sense of hope to the discussion. Indeed, Fennye noted that in celebrating his victory, Warnock mentioned Rabbi Heschel, who famously wrote that when he marched in protest with Dr. King, “‘he felt like his legs were praying.’ I think that he and Dr. King are smiling upon us in this moment.”

Following the webinar, Lennick told Haaretz, “This event was so much more than a review of history and thoughts about the future of Black-Jewish relations. It was a spiritual experience where all three shared personally about the imperative for people to learn to see each other as humans in God’s image… And [it is] motivating as we have already begun to discuss what programs need to follow this historic gathering and profound conversation.”

(The event can be viewed at: https://togetheragainstracismnm.org/)

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