WEST PALM BEACH — The relationship between black and Jewish people has had its share of ups and downs over the past half century.
But the two groups have clearly found common ground, as evidenced by the overwhelming support of Jews for then-presidential candidate, and now President Barack Obama, during the 2008 election.
Two prolific leaders in both communities came together recently for a discussion on the relationship between the two groups.
Martin Luther King III is the son of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. He is also the president and founder of Realizing the Dream, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to continuing the work of his father.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is president and founder of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and chairman of The World Jewish Congress.
Together, the men discussed, “Cooperation and Conflict: Relations between African Americans and Jews, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Present and Beyond.”
The men spoke on Feb. 11 in front of several hundred people at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach.
They both cited the involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement.
“Most people may know that historically, the Jewish community was very strongly supportive of the modern civil rights movement,” King said. “It was the relationship with our Jewish friends that helped strategize and sustain the movement because of the common suffering that I believe blacks and Jews shared.”
King further recalled that numerous Jews worked with his father. He said many Jews helped to raise money, strategize, and galvanize others for the cause.
Schneier, who has written a book titled, Shared Dreams, which chronicles the untold story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement with the Jewish community, agreed with his long-time friend: “No segment of American society provided as much to the African- American community during the civil rights struggle as did the Jewish community.’’
Schneier continued, “One of the greatest legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is that he understood that people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they fight for the rights of all people. We remember Dr. King as a champion and leader in the fight for the civil rights of Jews as well. He had zero-tolerance for anti-Semitism.”
Both King and Schneier recalled that the decade of the 1960s was good for black/Jewish relations.
“There are so many positive things that caused us to have to work together in the ‘60s,” King said. “It was a time of great turbulence, but great opportunities.”
Yet the ‘70s brought about strained relations between blacks and Jews in the aftermath of King’s assassination in 1968. More militant groups such as the Black Panthers denounced King’s non-violence stance. And more of the black population began to identify with the “Black Power” movement. The ‘80s and ‘90s were classified by more high-profile incidents, such as civil rights leader Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” comments in 1984.
During his first presidential campaign, Jackson deridingly referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York City as “Hymietown” in what he believed was a private conversation with a reporter.
And in 1991, the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, New York, marked the lowest point between the two groups, Schneier said. The riots erupted after an accident involving a Jewish driver caused the injury of a black child and the death of another one. The riots lasted three days.
But those strained times have been replaced by a cooperative spirit, the two men agreed.
“As I sit here in 2010, I find today relations between blacks and Jews is one of cooperation, and not one of tolerance,” Schneier said.
Schneier has taken an innovative approach to fostering the relationship between the two groups, and is even reaching the “hip-hop” generation. He works closely with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Simmons and rap superstar Jay-Z have recorded a public service announcement for the rabbi’s organization, speaking out against anti-Semitism. The PSA can be seen on the organization’s website, at ffeu.org.
“Today, I would have to say that black/Jewish relations are closer than we’ve been for quite some time,’’ King said. “I think we’ve come a great distance, and a large body of that work is attributed directly to The
Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the leadership of Rabbi Schneier.”
Photo by Carol Porter. Martin Luther King III, left, and Rabbi Marc Schneier, right.