MLK speechwriter reflects on Jewish, African-American ties

It is “essential” that the historic partnership between the African-American and American Jewish communities be reaffirmed and revitalized, according to Clarence B. Jones, former speechwriter for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jones, who wrote the first eight paragraphs of King’s immortal 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and who is now scholar-in-residence at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center at Stanford University, was the guest speaker last week at a leadership dinner sponsored by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and the Jewish Community Relations Council, with the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held at the Urban League in midtown.

Jones, 77, was persuaded back in 1960 as a young and promising attorney to sign on as speechwriter and legal counsel to King at a crucial juncture in the American civil rights movement. “It was not by accident that Dr. King approached the American Jewish community as his natural partner in the civil rights struggle,” Jones said. “He could have tried to form a coalition with Italian Americans or Polish Americans, but he felt a natural affinity for the American Jewish community because of our shared history of having been slaves and the power of the Exodus story. He also received the crucial support of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great American rabbi who came to the United States from Europe and immediately recognized that discrimination against blacks was parallel to the discrimination against Jews in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.”

Jones moved the 100 or so in attendance with an anecdote about Rabbi Heschel’s invitation in 1963 to address the Conservative Jewish movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “Rabbi Heschel said that he would do so if he could bring along his friend and colleague, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The two men entered the banquet hall and were greeted by 1,000 rabbis, arms linked together, singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ the anthem of the civil rights movement, in the Hebrew language. It was a profound moment.”

Jones and Joel Engel recently published “What Would Martin Say?” (Harper), a memoir of his Jones’ years on Dr. King’s staff, and reflections on how King might react to current situations. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while in Memphis in support of a sanitation workers strike.

“I am absolutely certain,” Jones said, “that Dr. King would have continued his close partnership and coalition with the American Jewish community, and that he would have continued to stand with American Jews and with the Jews of the State of Israel.”

Jones said that it was important for young Jews to become familiar with the civil rights struggle on a direct basis, and for young African-Americans to visit the State of Israel. “People tend to forget even recent history, and must be reminded through direct experience.”

Jones praised Israel as a viable democracy and strongly condemned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini Khamenei for Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and threats against Israel.

“It is an outrage,” Jones said, “that any president of any nation could threaten to destroy the Jewish State and its people with nuclear weapons, while at the same time denying that the Holocaust ever happened. We stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters in condemning these outrages.”

Jones also retraced the long history of close collaboration between the American Jewish community and the African-American community. “The American Jewish community, especially after the arrival of millions of Jews from Eastern Europe with progressive ideas, played major roles in the formation of both the NAACP and the Urban League.

“Our two communities then and now feel a kindred connection to the Israelites in Egypt escaping bondage and the experience of African-Americans who endured slavery in this country. The song ‘Go Down, Moses’ and the story of the Exodus formed the basis for many sermons in black churches across America. And of course Jews like Rabbi Heschel, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman naturally took part in the historic marches and the Freedom Summer of 1964.”

Jones added, “with only 12 percent of the American population, Rev. King knew that he had to win over coalition partners in the general population, and there was no more reliable partner than the American Jewish community.

You, (the American Jewish community) were there for us, you stood with us, and we must stand with you on issues of shared concern.”

Similar sentiments were expressed at the gathering by James H. Buford, CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis; Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the JCRC; Kristina King, Midwest director of AIPAC; and by Michael Litwack and Bill Young, co-chairs of the JCRC/Urban League/ African-American/Jewish Task Force.

Litwack, a past president of the Jewish Federation and former chair of the Holocuast Museum Commission, held up a copy of a special edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light from Feb. 22, 1989 which spoke of the importance of reaffirming and reviving the African-American and Jewish American partnership. “Those words were important then and are even more important now,” Litwack said.