As I watched neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville, VA a few weeks ago with torches in hand yelling “Jews will not replace us” while celebrating a general of the Confederate Army who had fought to overthrow the U.S. government in order to preserve the institution of slavery, I reflected on the fact that those who have raised the banner of anti-Semitism and racism are usually one in the same, or at least bedfellows. We are currently witnessing a rise in both forms of hate in the U.S.and in many other places around the world, and just like the past, it is going to take a unified coalition to defeat it all.
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On Monday, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Steven Fox, joined Martin Luther King III and I as we led a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. The “One Thousand Ministers March for Justice” brought together religious leaders from multiple faiths and people from all backgrounds to collectively fight for the soul of our nation. On the 54th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” we gathered for four main principles: voting rights, health care, criminal justice reform and economic justice. All are currently under renewed threat in the United States.
Whether it is attempts to suppress the vote, take away health care reform, or an overall mechanism where there is unequal access to opportunities and a criminal justice system that preys on the poor and communities of color, this is where the battle for equality is today. We as faith leaders joined in unison because we know that an attack on one group or an injustice against one group is an injustice against us all. In addition to the overt forms of racism and bigotry we push back against, we must also tackle the systemic forms of racism and inequality that still permeate our society. It is why ministers, rabbis and imams locked arms and marched with thousands of others from the King Memorial to the steps of the Department of Justice.
Historically, the African American community and the Jewish community have fought for each other and against racism, anti-Semitism and hatred in all its forms. During World War II, black soldiers fought against the Nazis even though they were still segregated and discriminated against back home. In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi; two of them, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were Jewish Americans. We have stood by one another and fought against bigotry during some of the toughest periods in history. Today, we continue to do just that.
Now, there are some who point to moments of tension between our communities, or things which we may have disagreed on – some of which was distorted on both sides. We can debate what occurred or didn’t occur a quarter of a century ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn or anywhere else, but we cannot do it at the expense of the clear and present danger of now. Our common struggle is more important today and at this time.
Those of us really committed must get past our arguments on what did and did not happen in order to deal with the broader mandate of standing up for humanity. There is far too much that we all face today which will require unified fronts like our march in the nation’s capital on Monday. The “One Thousand Ministers March” echoed the demonstrations of the past when religious leaders peacefully assembled together to shed light on injustice.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Dr. King as they fought for civil rights for every man, woman and child. In fact, we honored Rabbi Heschel posthumously at National Action Network’s (my organization) convention and presented an award to his daughter. During the 1960s and throughout many other time periods, we achieved progress only when we came together for equality and justice.
Dr. King himself once stated: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
We are at a critical juncture here in the United States and around the world. What we do next and how we proceed will shape the future for generations to come. If we are to defeat vile hate groups who now feel emboldened, or defeat laws that are being implemented to reinforce systemic racism and discrimination, we must stand united because we know that we stand on the right side of history.
Rev. Al Sharpton is president and founder of National Action Network