by Coretta Scott King
Originally published in the January, 1969 issue of Jewish Currents
This address was delivered by Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr., at the Presidential Inaugural Spiritual Service at Brandeis University, October 4, 1968.
THE QUESTION, “CAN THERE BE ONE AMERICA?” is one which requires careful thought and analysis. This is essentially a question dealing with unity. Is America a nation of one people, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all? America was founded on the principles of justice, equality and brotherhood, which were so eloquently expressed by our founding fathers in our creed, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is certainly one of the most beautiful and meaningful declarations on human rights in all history. It establishes both the divine origin of our nation and the divine inspiration of our founding fathers.
Ours is a nation characterized by its emphasis on all ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Sometimes it has been called the melting pot of the world.
America has a great heritage of freedom and equal opportunity for all its citizens but it also has the blight on its conscience for having practiced slavery for 244 years, and segregation another 100 years, so its teachings and its practices have been inconsistent. Yes, America must repent for the inhumanity which she practiced against her black citizens. The wrongs have persisted for almost three and a half centuries in this country. With the rising tide of expectation of the oppressed peoples of the world and the black people of this nation during the last decade and a half, and the resistance of white America to granting the black man total equality, the process of integration has been slowed down.
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders warns of our society being divided into two camps — one white and one black — unless steps are taken to integrate the black man more fully into the mainstream of American society in the areas of jobs, housing, and education. It is revealed that white racism is the main reason for the disorders, bitterness and frustrations which exist in the black
America has her black versus white problem, or problem of racism which is deeply rooted in her culture. She has her problem of the rich versus the poor, which is related to the color problem and she has her problems of the young and the old — all of these threaten to prevent her from becoming one America. Because the Negro and the Jew have had a common heritage of slavery and oppression, I should like to discuss their relationship to each other.
THE RELATIONS BETWEEN JEWS AND NEGROES ARE IMPORTANT because historically Jews have been intimately associated with the civil rights struggle and because as a people Jews are the most cohesive, consistent liberal force in American society. Until recently, it was taken for granted by black leaders and most Jewish leaders that unity and understanding inevitably would characterize our relations. Yet today, sharp abrasions are appearing, particularly in school difficulties in Northern ghettos. Beyond this there are new vocal expressions against Jewish-owned enterprises in the slum areas and all of these have given rise to disquiet in the Jewish community about future relations.
It would be wrong to oversimplify, but it would be equally wrong to exaggerate. It is incontestable that there is an increase in anti-Jewish expressions, but if these are viewed in isolation and a response of injured resentment and self righteousness is evoked, it can neither be helpful nor is it a response based on insight and clear perception.
The major reason for anti-Jewish expression is that there is a rise in anti-white feelings in black ghettos. Jews are in closer proximity to Negroes in almost all walks of life in the North — in schools, in stores, in employment and in their homes. As Negroes are striking back, sometimes in irrational anger, toward the white power and too often domination, they collide with Jews as the white adversary.
The black man who resorts to racial and religious prejudice in his struggle is misguided and unwise. Ironically, he hurts himself more than he hurts his adversary because Negroes will suffer more by perpetuation of racism than anyone. Indeed, Jews are little able to be harmed by Negroes, whose power potential is small, but in unleashing racism, Negroes can only feed the evil that most oppresses them.
Negro leaders cannot be equivocal on this question. Anti-Semitism in American life is abhorrent, reactionary, and evil. It is spawned from the same ignorance and evil that give birth to anti-Negro prejudice and until both are wiped out, an authentic democratic humanist spirit cannot live and thrive in our society.
However, to say this truth is not to say much that is new. Today, something new needs to be added to our thinking. It is a fact that some collisions are inevitable between interest groups of black people and Jews. While it is wrong to sloganeer with racist overtones about control of schools and businesses in the ghetto, it is not wrong for black people to seek control of their lives. The problem arises because there are Jews who may be replaced in the process of encouraging black control. Some Jews view this process as directed against themselves because they are Jews rather than because they are white, and some Negroes are developing the process as anti-Jewish rather than against white domination.
THE COLLISION OF INTEREST GROUPS has been painful and sacrificial for some. It is part of an inevitable sequence of change. However, it does not have to be racist — it does not have to be vicious. There are no easy answers and I will not pretend to an omniscience that can create structural change without breaking any old patterns.
It is perhaps a challenge of extraordinary dimensions for black and Jewish leaders to pioneer and find new mechanisms for change that will hurt as little as possible, do as much as is necessary, and keep the temptation to resort to stereotypes and prejudices at bay. If Jews and Negroes cannot work this out with a maximum of understanding, it will be unfortunate because there are no two groups in our society at a point of confrontation who have greater understanding of each other than Jews and Negroes.
James Baldwin correctly pointed out many years ago that Negroes identify with Jews more than with any other white people. Perceiving in Jewish history and experience the same struggle for survival they have endured, it is not accident nor coincidence that Negro religious expression so heavily emphasizes the Old Testament and particularly Exodus.
In contemporary life, Negroes meet Jews on two sharply contrasting levels: as dedicated co-workers in the struggle for equality and simultaneously as insensitive exploiters as landlords, shopkeepers and moneylenders. It is difficult for the ghetto-abused and oppressed Negro to retain the image of the selfless Jews when the selfish ones are omnipresent in their community.
It is probably fair to say that it is more surprising that there is so limited a range to anti-Semitism, given the religious, social, and employment experiences. Studies conducted with scientific precision have disclosed that there is no more anti-Semitism among Negroes than is shown among similar white income groups.
What is needed is for both groups to face boldly the sharpening confrontation and for each to be honest to the other in acknowledging conflicts. At the same time Negro and Jewish leaders will have to be unrelenting within their own communities to give no quarter to racism. This is the one evil that threatens us both; it is the one evil we are in common mandated to fight for our joint survival and for survival of the nation. If we falter here, there are no victories that will win freedom.
FINALLY, IT MUST BE SAID that there is a mutual dependence. The Negro struggle has been aided by the long Jewish fight for equality. In the same sense the Negro revolution has incontestably enlarged tolerance and understanding not only for black people but for all minorities. It is not coincidence that the sharpest drop in anti-Semitism has occurred in the period of the Negro revolt. It was inevitable that as our fight stimulated the conscience of the nation, it benefited Jewish relations with the larger community.
If these lessons are driven home in sharp and frank terms, those who would use bigotry will be isolated to vulgar sects incapable of infecting large numbers. To this end, we need vigorous and unrelenting dedication by the statesmen of our communities.
Indeed, the question now, as we move into the last third of the present century, is not whether there can be one America. Our very survival depends upon how rapidly we can overcome the forces which separate us from one another and alienate us from ourselves. Integration, personal and social, is the key to a healthier and happier America. If we can quickly learn to think anew and act anew, the dangerous, bloody future which looms on our horizon can be, instead, a liberating and exhilarating dawn of a new day.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln:
Firmly do we hope
Reverently do we pray
That the dark clouds of the present
Will soon pass away.
Despite all of the problems which threaten to divide us as a nation, it is imperative that we overcome these barriers and emerge as one America, not only for the sake of our nation but for the sake of our world. We cannot allow ourselves to be destroyed from without.
The one thing that can save us is to embrace the philosophy of love and non-violence. Love unifies. Love is the key that unlocks the door to understanding and brings about redemption.
In our common struggle for survival we must seek a reign of justice, of mercy, of equality, of peace and of brotherhood where America can experience a new birth of freedom and truly become one nation under God.