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‘We Share a Legacy’

Jewish and African American community members reflect on history to commemorate Martin Luther King Day.

When members of Montgomery County’s African American and Jewish communities met Jan. 11 to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, it was not lost on anyone that in the preceding week, both groups had been the victims of apparent hate crimes.

“We share a legacy of slavery,” observed Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor and former Clinton Administration official. “We share a legacy of discrimination. We share a legacy of being the other, the hated, the despised, the excluded, the ostracized. So we in particular can commit ourselves in the shared memory of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel to recommit ourselves in the cause of justice.”

Edelman was one of four speakers at a panel discussion at the Bolger Center in Potomac examining the historic links between the African American and Jewish communities in the United States. The free, public event, entitled “Remembering the Past, Building a Future,” was jointly organized by the Montgomery County NAACP and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

The other panelists were Ike Leggett, the former Montgomery County Councilmember and current candidate for county executive; Colbert King, columnist and deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post; and Peter Krauser, a judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. Journalist David Shuster of NBC News’ “Hardball” moderated the discussion.

“WE MEET AT a time when we miss Dr. King perhaps as much as ever,” Shuster said in opening remarks. He briefly summarized the black-Jewish alliance in America, including Jews’ role in the formation of the NAACP in 1909 and African-American newspapers’ swift denunciation of Nazism in the 1930s.

Martin Luther King, who staunchly opposed anti-Semitism as well as racial inequality, further united the communities and their relationship blossomed in the civil rights era, when African Americans and Jews “marched arm and arm.” Panelists and members of the 130-person audience later talked about participating in those civil rights marches and boycotts.

But Shuster also raised one of the vexing questions of the evening. Did the black-Jewish alliance fizzle out after civil rights? Have the groups’ divergent priorities trumped their shared identities and interests?

“Our respective communities seem to be drifting apart,” Shuster said, “With priorities that couldn’t be more different.”

Krauser disagreed with that idea. “The black Jewish alliance has been declared dead so many times I can’t count,” he said. “In 1964, when the Mississippi Freedom Party was not seated at the Democratic convention, some claimed the black-Jewish alliance was dead. ... In 1968 when Martin Luther King died, there were those that said the black-Jewish alliance is dead. ... I can attest it isn’t. It’s alive. And at the risk of sounding like Gene Wilder in ‘Young Frankenstein’: It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive.”

Still, other speakers questioned the vitality of the relationship and, more broadly, the vitality of the principles of Martin Luther King in a society where socioeconomic divides and geography create the same kind of segregation that was once mandated by Jim Crow laws.

Colbert King cited JC Nalle Elementary School in Southeast Washington, D.C., the subject of one of his columns. He said that the students in that school are more racially isolated than he was as a student before desegregation.

School Board member Valerie Ervin, who attended the discussion, agreed.

“I think it’s where we live. We don’t live in the same neighborhoods. We don’t go to synagogue together. We don’t socialize together,” she said.

That’s a disservice to students for whom Martin Luther King Day means little more than a day off from school.

Relationships like the historic black-Jewish alliance “mean everything,” Ervin said. “You can tell by the numbers of people that came to this thing that it’s a real big deal.”

The panelists were limited to five minutes each to speak before audience members had the chance to speak and their questions and comments seemed geared toward dialogue about social justice and cross-cultural relationships.

One speaker said that as a Muslim American, he admired the African American-Jewish relationship. Another, Peggy Dennis of Potomac, raised questions about scholarships given out by the Maryland General Assembly without regard to financial need. One talked about Operation Understanding D.C., which links Jewish and African American high school students to promote mutual respect and understanding.

Speakers praised that effort, and in closing remarks, Colbert King suggested that achieving lofty goals must begin at home.

“I would suggest that when you go home tonight you think about your friends, you think about the people who come into your home ... and then ask, ‘Are my personal actions consistent with my professed beliefs?’” King said. “If you conclude that you really don’t have the contact with the other side that you’d like to have — that you should have — you have to take the first step.”