MLK and AJH: Two Friends, Two Prophets

by Bob Schwartz

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. at Arlington National Cemetery, February 6, 1968.

“Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel

From Two Friends, Two Prophets, Plough Quarterly, by Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel.


Two Friends, Two Prophets: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s easy to forget how unusual the friendship between Heschel and King was in its day. The two came from very different backgrounds – King had grown up in Atlanta, Georgia, while Heschel arrived in the United States as a refugee from Hitler’s Europe in March of 1940 – “a brand plucked from the fire,” as he wrote. Yet the two found an intimacy that transcended the growing public rift between their two communities….

Heschel and King shared a disdain for the popular liberal Protestant theology of the era, and a skepticism for orthodoxies. They mocked Paul Tillich’s definition of God as the “ground of being,” helpless in the face of injustice. Both thought that Karl Barth’s theology left “the average mind lost in the fog of theological abstractions,” as King wrote….

The March on Washington took place in August 1963, with more than two hundred thousand people participating.

“The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” Abraham Joshua Heschel

Their pleas were met by a disappointing silence. President Kennedy did not declare a state of moral emergency, nor did clergy donate a month of salary to housing and education. If anything, the tensions in the United States grew even more dire. Just weeks later, on September 15, 1963, a church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four young black girls. That same day, James Bevel and Diane Nash launched the Alabama Project that ultimately led to the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

The prophets – both Heschel’s book and the biblical figures – drew Heschel and King together. Both men were trained theologians who also knew how to preach. King was the organizer and public figure, while Heschel was the theologian and scholar with the voice of a public intellectual. Prophetic rhetoric has a long public history in the United States, yet it was not only the prophets’ words that stood out. For King and Heschel, the prophets were extraordinary human beings with passionate emotional lives, people who knew how to pray and who created powerful symbolic moments….

The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery was a major event for both Heschel and King. A few days before the march took place, Heschel led a delegation of eight hundred people to FBI headquarters in New York City in order to protest the brutal treatment of demonstrators in Selma. On Friday, March 19, two days before the Selma march was scheduled to begin, Heschel received a telegram from King, inviting him to join the marchers. Heschel was welcomed as one of the leaders in the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Ralph Abernathy. Each of them wore flower leis brought by Hawaiian delegates. In an unpublished memoir that he wrote upon returning from Selma, Heschel describes the extreme hostility he encountered from whites in Alabama from the moment he arrived at the airport, in contrast to the kindness he was shown by King’s assistants….

Were Heschel and King the prophets of America? Neither claimed the title, but each spoke of the other as a prophet. In introducing King to the audience, Heschel asked, “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”

In response, King stated that Heschel “is indeed a truly great prophet…. Here and there we find those who refuse to remain silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows, and they are forever seeking to make the great ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage relevant in this day and in this age.”

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