'Negroes can well understand': King in his own words

On the Soviet oppression of Jews

Much has been written about Jewish participation in the civil rights movement. Less explored is Martin Luther King Jr.'s support for Jewish causes, including efforts to help the oppressed Jews of the Soviet Union. He delivered the following address on the matter in December 1966.

[Jews in the Soviet Union] may not be physically murdered as they were in Nazi Germany, [but] they are facing every day a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide. Individual Jews may be in the main physically and economically secure in Russia, but the absence of opportunity to associate as Jews in the enjoyment of Jewish culture and religious experience becomes a severe limitation upon the individual.

These deprivations are a part of a person's emotional and intellectual life. They determine whether he is fulfilled as a human being. Negroes can well understand and sympathize with this problem. When you are written out of history as a people, when you are given no choice but to accept the majority culture, you are denied an aspect of your own identity. Ultimately, you suffer a corrosion of your self-understanding and your self respect.

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World public opinion is justified in reminding. [the Soviets] that they are repressing a cultural heritage that is world property. Jewish history and culture are a part of everyone's heritage, whether he be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. The Soviet Union must recognize the legitimate criticism that insists it accord fair treatment to its Jewish community.

If that government expects respect for itself in the international community of nations, the sincere and genuine concern felt by so many people around the world for this problem should impel the Soviet government not only to effect a solution but to do so with all deliberate speed.

In the meantime, let us continue to make our voices heard and our righteous protests felt. We cannot sit complacently by the wayside while our Jewish brothers in the Soviet Union face the possible extinction of their cultural and spiritual life. Those that sit at rest, while others take pains, are tender turtles and buy their quiet with disgrace.

Reprinted with permission from Chapter 12: "Our Marching Steps Will Thunder: We survive," from "Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. & the Jewish Community." Copyright 1999, Jewish Lights Publishing.

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