Sammy Davis, Jr., an African American entertainer who underwent a reform conversion, would tell of the time he tried to board a bus down south.
“Go to the back of the bus!” the driver yelled at him.
“But, sir,” the entertainer protested, “I am Jewish.”
“Then get off my bus!” the driver shouted.
As America marks the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King’s landmark March on Washington, D.C., we take note that many of the same forces of hatred behind the widespread persecution of African Americans for generations exhibited the same abhorrence for Jews and other minorities.
It wasn’t all that long ago that signs reading “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Jews” were common, especially in rural areas.
While American Jews never experienced the degree of blatant discrimination and forced segregation that African Americans endured in the first century after emancipation, they did face subtle but undeniable discrimination, especially in obtaining jobs and renting properties. Cognizant of their own long and bitter history of oppression in other lands, coupled with a genuine concern about human rights and compassion for others, numerous Jews actively joined and supported the Civil Rights movement.
Among them were Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Hy”d, who traveled to Mississippi to volunteer for Freedom Summer and help register African American citizens to vote. At that time, African Americans were not permitted to vote unless they paid an exorbitant poll tax and passed a literacy test. They were also faced with outright intimidation and physical violence.
On June 21, 1964, the two Jews, joined by an African American named James Chaney, were arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Cecil Price on speeding charges. Price later released them, but not before contacting local members of the KKK and cooperating with a group of Klansmen who brutally murdered the three men.
Despite a widespread investigation, the bodies were not found for 44 days. When they were finally discovered, the only charges brought against the mob who murdered the three young men were federal charges of conspiracy to violate their constitutional rights, not murder. It was only 41 years later, in 2005, that the man who planned the murders was finally brought to justice.
King was very grateful to Jewish people for their support. In an article he wrote deploring black riots in New York City and Rochester, he declared that he was particularly pained by the fact that a “large percentage of the looted stores were owned by our Jewish friends, since, as a group, the Jewish citizens of the United States have always stood for freedom, justice and an end to bigotry.” He added that the Jews demonstrated their commitment to tolerance “in tangible ways, often at great personal sacrifice.”
Well before the struggle for Russian Jewry became popular, King spoke up on their behalf. “I cannot stand idly by — even though I happen to live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro — and not be concerned about what happens to the Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them happens to me and you, and we must be concerned,” he said.
He also consistently voiced his support for the State of Israel, and less than two weeks before he was assassinated, King declared, in words that are equally relevant today: “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.”
In spite of numerous acts of police brutality and acts of violence and even murder on the part of white supremacists, much to his credit, Rev. King never veered from his path of nonviolent civil disobedience.
In his famous address 50 years ago this week, King stated that the marchers had come to the nation’s capital to “cash a check.”
“When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” he said.
At that time — in 1963 — King argued that instead of honoring this sacred obligation, “America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” King declared.
Five decades later, America has come a long way closer to cashing that check.
“Tomorrow, just like 50 years ago, an African American man will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and speak about civil rights and justice. But afterward, he won’t visit the White House. He’ll go home to the White House,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday. “That’s how far this country has come. A black president is a victory that few could have imagined 50 years ago.”
But there is still more work to be done to protect the rights of all minorities in this country — whether they are African Americans, Jews or others. The threats posed by current White Supremacist groups must be taken seriously, and America’s justice system must be further strengthened with the goal that every American, regardless of the color of his skin or the religion he practices, is treated fairly and justly.