By William Fisher
Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I hope we will also remember the heart-wrenching image of MLK compatriot, Andrew Young, in tears as he spoke and being comforted by fellow civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson, at the groundbreaking of the new King Memorial on the Mall in Washington last week.
The groundbreaking for the Memorial – sited along the western edge of the Tidal Basin near the Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials -- was profoundly moving. Speakers from George W. Bush to Bill Clinton to Oprah to Barack Obama reached into some inner place in their hearts to pay tribute to the immeasurable contribution Dr. King made to their lives, to our country, and to the world.
Some of the most poignant words came from Congressman John Lewis. There is no more credible witness to this tumultuous page in American history than this courageous man, who was at MLK’s side as hundreds challenged police by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The marchers were attacked by Alabama State Troopers and beaten so badly that the event came to be known as "Bloody Sunday." A white clergyman was killed in the melee. It was Bloody Sunday that captured the attention of the nation – and of President Lyndon Johnson -- and resulted in the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s.
The words of all who spoke at last week’s event were eloquent and heartfelt but, in the end, proved to be imperfect tools to convey the incalculable consequence of MLK’s life and death.
But there was also one joltingly abrasive moment. It came in the speech delivered by the Rev. Bernice King, MLK’s youngest daughter, who is an ordained preacher and an Elder at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Rev. King, speaking in pulpit cadence and sounding much like her father, praised him as a great pastor, not to just to his congregation, but to the nation and the world.
She also embraced her father’s politics – decrying the “triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism” which “are clogging our arteries more today, than they were in his.”
What came next, however, was a shock, not because she invoked the name of Jesus – arguably to be expected from a member of the Christian clergy – but because she implied that what was achieved by the civil rights movement was achieved in His name, and proclaimed, “America is a Christian nation.”
In the context of the civil rights movement, this seemed to me a worrying case of historical amnesia – and one grotesquely at odds with what MLK spent his life trying to teach us. It struck me as being right up there with Jesse Jackson’s unfortunate 1984 reference to New York City as “Hymietown.”
There is no argument that the civil rights movement was largely an African-American movement and that the black church played a pivotal role in getting it off the ground, keeping it going, and persevering against impossible odds to see it through to success.
But that doesn’t qualify America as “a Christian nation.” The struggle for black freedom always had significant and sustained help. And that help came in the form of participation by people of every religious faith – and many of no faith at all.
For example, what Bernice King failed to mention was that in the decade from 1954 to 1964, blacks and many whites worked together to end racial segregation, and that American Jews contributed more than any other white group to support the movement. They raised money. They gave money. And they repeatedly put their lives on the line.
Jews made up nearly half of the volunteers involved in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. While making up only two per cent of the population, Jews made up more than half the civil rights lawyers who worked with the movement in the south. Leaders of the Jewish Reform Movement were arrested with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations. A year later, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood arm-in-arm with Dr. King as he marched on Selma.
One of the co-founders of the NAACP was Jewish, and many of its members and leading activists came from within the Jewish community. Jewish philanthropists actively supported the NAACP and other civil rights groups. The Jewish philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, funded the creation of dozens of primary schools, secondary schools, and colleges for disenfranchised African-American youth. This effort by the Jewish community resulted in building some 2,000 schools.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the aegis of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which had been located in the Center for decades.
Why is this history important? Because it goes to the heart of MLK’s message – that the core of the non-violent civil rights movement was not about Christianity or any other religion. It was about love, justice and equity.
For that reason, news that the achievements of the movement were made in the name of Jesus came as a shock to many of us, perhaps most to the families of Michael Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.
For others with historical amnesia, rewind to June 16, 1964. That was the date on which armed members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan fire-bombed the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, a rural community in notorious Neshoba County.
Along with James Chaney, a black civil rights worker, Michael Schwerner, a Jewish volunteer, was asked to investigate the ruins. With them was Andrew Goodman, another Jewish volunteer who was in Mississippi to coordinate the Neshoba county voter registration project. While enroute back to Meridian, Mississippi, the three were stopped and detained by a Neshoba County sheriff's deputy. Later, they were released from police custody and conveniently intercepted by Klansmen. They were murdered and, after a 44-day search, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam.
No one was ever charged with the murders but seven Klansmen were eventually convicted for violating the civil rights of the three young men and sentenced to three to ten years in prison. None served more than six years.
Goodman and Schwerner didn’t believe they were working for Jesus. Nor did they believe America was “a Christian nation.” They were working to reverse injustice. And their America was color-blind and religion-deaf.
The civil rights movement galvanized Americans of all shapes and sizes, of all colors and all religious beliefs. Its rich history needs no revision.
Not by any of us, including Bernice King.