I am a proud attendee of a local Women’s March in Atlanta in 2017. I also became very disturbed early on by statements from Linda Sarsour about how women in Saudi Arabia didn’t have it so bad and how issues such as women being forbidden from driving or going out in public unveiled are trivial. The issues of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and palling around with Louis Farrakhan are alarming as well, and the response of Tamika Mallory has been disheartening. Farrakhan is an anti-Semite, a homophobe, and a misogynist, who condemns interracial marriage and defends racial segregation. He must be condemned. At the same time, I was frustrated by Meghan McCain’s criticism of Mallory. I don’t see McCain denouncing Lindsey Graham, who is also a racist, also a misogynist, also a homophobe, and has far more political power than Farrakhan ever has or ever will. Indeed, in a big way, people like Graham are the reason why leaders like Farrakhan exist. The Lindsey Grahams of the world are a great recruiting tool for reverse racist groups such as the Nation of Islam. With all of that said, I thought that since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is tomorrow, it would be interesting to look at the contrast between King’s and Farrakhan’s views on anti-Semitism.
Of course, Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism has been widely discussed. What may be less well known is the extent to which Martin Luther King, Jr. implicitly and explicitly rejected anti-Semitism. His closest white friend and Southern Christian Leadership Conference cofounder, Stanley Levison, was a nonreligious Jewish New Yorker. Levison functioned an adviser, publicist, and ghostwriter to King. Due to his being a Communist Party member, Levison became a lightning rod for controversy within the SCLC, and the Kennedy Administration pressured King to cut ties with him. King was unwilling to disassociate from his friend and adviser, and they began the process of utilizing another Civil Rights Movement activist, Clarence Jones, as a go-between in order to remain in communication without the federal government noticing.
When King addressed the issue of anti-Semitism, as he did on multiple occasions, he always emphatically condemned it. He was not shy about making comparisons between the experiences of black people and the experiences of Jewish people, though of course, there are also major differences. At the 1958 American Jewish Congress Convention, he declared, “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.” Then, as now, not all Jewish Americans were supportive of black equality. The story of the various “Levittowns,” seven suburban housing developments built after World War II illustrates the divergent positions that individual Jewish Americans took on the race question. Real estate developer, William Levitt, had a policy of not selling any homes in these areas to blacks or fellow Jews. On the other hand, it was a Jewish family, the Wechslers, who secretly helped a black couple named Bill and Daisy Myers buy a house in Levittown, Pennsylvania. But Dr. King was aware that, then as now, Jewish Americans in the aggregate were far more supportive of civil rights for black people than non-Jewish white Americans were in the aggregate. In 1964, he asserted that, “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom–it has been so great.” We must guard against attempts by conservatives, primarily white, to spin outlandish narratives about what King would think if he were alive today. The idea, for example, that King, who eviscerated American racism in the harshest terms, would support efforts to destroy people’s careers for kneeling during the National Anthem is laughable. The idea that King, who was a staunch theological liberal and praised the Supreme Court’s ruling against official, teacher-led prayer in public schools, would support the Religious Right is farcical. But we can be fairly certain that if he were alive today, King would firmly deplore anti-Semitism, along with all other racial bigotry.