Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Heschel: A friendship of spirituality and social justice

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From l.: John Lewis, unidentified nun, Ralph Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Fred Shuttlesworth at the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., March 21, 1965. Submitted photo

Leading up to the first Granby Racial Unity Festival on June 29, 2024, Granby Racial Reconciliation (GRR) will profile interracial relationships that are great models of racial unity and race amity in the Granby Drummer and on our website.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the first profile will highlight his warm and mutually respectful relationship with the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. As Heschel’s daughter Susannah said in a 2017 interview at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, “That was a wonderful friendship, my father and Dr. King. It has had a kind of symbolic meaning for a lot of people within the Jewish community and the African-American community.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a theologian, philosopher, teacher, author, and social activist, who was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland in a Hasidic family. Heschel completed graduate studies and started his teaching career in Berlin. But he was forced to leave Europe at the start of World War II, first being deported to Poland and then escaping to the United States in 1940. Heschel lost several family members to the Holocaust, including three sisters and his mother.

Heschel’s experience of Nazi systemic racism and hatred would greatly influence and motivate his life’s work, including his condemnation of racism and racial stratification in the United States. Upon Heschel’s arrival in the U.S. in 1940, he saw a Black person for the very first time in his life, and he described his shock—not at the man’s skin color but by the fact of “an African American kneeling to polish the shoes of a white man.” He would soon learn that this same dynamic was at play all around him. 

While working at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in the 1940s, Herschel noticed that it was African Americans who did the serving, cleaning, and laundry. He then made an effort to connect with and understand the challenging circumstances of the school’s Black employees.

From 1945 until his death almost 30 years later, Heschel was a professor of mysticism and social ethics at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. He became a preeminent Jewish thinker and writer. In the 1960s, Heschel embraced political activism. Julian Zelizer, a historian with Princeton University, said of Heschel, “When people think of the tradition of progressive politics and Judaism coming together, that’s Heschel.”

One lesson that Heschel brought from his experience in Europe was related to the power of words – for good and for evil. In her introduction to a collection of her father’s essays, Susannah wrote, “He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child. They must be used very carefully.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also knew the power of language. King used his carefully chosen and powerfully delivered words to inspire a following and to connect with his countrymen. Many of his speeches referenced the prophets, purportedly taking inspiration from Heschel’s own most famous book, The Prophets (1962). The rabbi was informed by the political passions around him as he penned this book.

As the 1960s progressed, the rabbi became increasingly involved in the Civil Rights Movement and placed great emphasis on the importance of social action. He felt that the only moral response to a catastrophe is to focus on human responsibility.

Heschel wrote in 1963, “Racism is an evil of tremendous power, but…Surrender to despair is surrender to evil. It is important to feel anxiety, it is sinful to wallow in despair. What we need is a total mobilization of the heart, intelligence, and wealth for the purpose of love and justice.”

According to the MLK, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, both leaders “…were driven by the notion of a collective responsibility for the fate of mankind…”

Though Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel had been admiring each other’s work, it was not until January 1963 that these inspiring men met in person. King invited Heschel to speak at the National Conference on Religion and Race, where Heschel argued that if a person claims to be religious but is not an activist, he or she is not truly religious. King reported being very much moved by Heschel’s speech.

In their book Race Amity: America’s Other Tradition (2019), William Smith, Ed.D. and Richard Thomas, Ph.D., explain that beyond a shared belief in social action, Dr. King and Heschel had a spiritual bond based upon a shared belief in, as King put it, the “sanctity of human beings in the eyes of God.” What followed in the context of racism was the belief that “segregation denies the sacredness of the human personality.”

Later in 1963, Heschel was asked to join 400 Christian and Jewish leaders at a meeting with President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Prior to the meeting, he sent a telegram to the President, urging him to declare a state of “moral emergency” regarding the treatment of African Americans, noting that “the hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

In 1965, a photo of Dr. King and Heschel captured them marching side by side from Selma to Montgomery, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as part of a broader movement for voting rights. It is an iconic photo of the Civil Rights Movement.

Heschel and King’s last meeting took place in March 1968, when King was invited to speak at the Rabbinical Assembly convention. As King took the stage, the assembled rabbis stood up and sang We Shall Overcome in Hebrew. King professed to being deeply moved by this gesture.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just 10 days after this assembly and Rabbi Heschel read a psalm at his funeral. Rabbi Heschel who was 22 years King’s senior, would die just four years later, in 1972.

Dr. King had said of Heschel, “Rabbi Heschel is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights.” And Heschel had said of King, “His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”