This week we mark one of the saddest days in modern American history and its aftermath: April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by a single rifle shot while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis.
The night before, he had delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which hauntingly sounds as if King knew he would never return alive to Atlanta from his trip to support striking sanitation workers.
The Southern Israelite of April 5, 1968, which went to press before the assassination, led with a story about Memphis’ growing Orthodox community coming through riots relatively unscathed a week earlier; it included a small item about national Reform leaders endorsing King’s planned Poor People’s Campaign.
A week later, Atlanta’s Jewish newspaper reflected the anguish felt not only across the United States, but particularly in King’s hometown. “Jews Throughout America Mourn Martyred Dr. King” was the lead headline on the front page, but Editor and Publisher Adolph Rosenberg also shared the fear that extremists would tear apart the City Too Busy to Hate in “Nightmare, Dream of Peace Vie for Upper Hand in Atlanta”: “This writer was reminded that it must have been like this … when the Leo Frank posse moved into Atlanta and Jewish people hid and wondered what would happen.”
Rosenberg’s editorial carried through that fear of the unknown, that without King, any peaceful progress in race relations and civil rights would give way to righteous anger that would devastate the Jewish community. But at its heart, it is an elegy for the Jewish community’s lost friend.
“It is an ironic commentary on the present state of American society that a gentle man of peace should meet his death in an act of violence,” the editorial reads.
It goes on to cite King’s praise for early Jewish leadership in the civil rights movement and his condemnation of the emergence of a thread of anti-Semitism among the radical forces in the black community. “When these same militant, black-power advocates accused Israel of being the aggressor in the Six-Day War, and they were aided and abetted by the white radical left, and the Israelis were called imperialists,” the newspaper said, King came to Israel’s public defense.
A man of G-d first and foremost, King was an honorary alumnus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a frequent and admired speaker before national Jewish organizations, and a friend to some of Atlanta’s Jewish leaders. As The Southern Israelite emphasized, he was a product of Atlanta and all its opportunities and connections.
“We extend to his family our deep sympathy in their bereavement. We fervently hope and pray that his sacrifice will give renewed vigor and strength to the movement for justice in American life,” the newspaper said.
We can’t know how King’s views on Israel might have evolved the past half-century or whether his ties to the Jewish community would have remained strong, just as we’ll likely never know the full story of how the great man met his end outside a Memphis hotel. But we can look to his example to inspire a renewal of the close black-Jewish cooperation that elevated Atlanta to the leadership of the New South then and can carry our city to the forefront of a thriving nation in the years to come.