Our Fathers Marched With M.L.K. Here’s What They Would Say to Activists Today.


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By Donzaleigh Abernathy and Avi Dresner

Martin Luther King Jr
Dr. King leads a voter protest march in Selma, Ala., March 9, 1965. Rev. Abernathy is in the row behind King. Rabbi Dresner is one row further behind. (Associated Press)

On March 9, 1965, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. chose two of the hundreds of men of faith present that day to deliver the prayer that began the march to Montgomery: the Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy Sr., his dear friend and closest associate during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and Rabbi Israel Dresner, one of Dr. King’s most trusted allies in the Jewish community.

Those men were our fathers.


We believe the lessons of our fathers’ life and work — and, most importantly, the ways in which they bridged the divides between their communities — offer us a path toward navigating our own divisive era.

When Abernathy and Dresner met in August of 1962, it was through the bars of a segregated jail cell in Albany, Ga. During their years together in the movement, our dads became soul mates.

Jail was not new to either man, and between them, they would go on to be arrested dozens more times. Both received multiple death threats. Abernathy’s home and church were bombed. Dresner found a bullet hole through the rear window of his car in the driveway of his home.

Despite the pain of all they went through, our fathers fervently believed that it is always the right time to engage in dialogue in the pursuit of understanding and peace.

Our fathers saw much in common. King, Abernathy and their fellow Black activists found inspiration in the Exodus story. King once told Dresner how much he admired Jews for celebrating the narrative of their slave ancestors in Egypt. The rabbi reminded him that Jews had also been slaves less than 20 years prior in the concentration and death camps of Europe. Most of Dresner’s father’s family was killed in the Holocaust, and he and many Jewish activists saw the world’s silence in the face of the Holocaust as a cautionary tale. They refused to remain silent in the subjugation of their African American brothers and sisters.


In the intervening years our communities drifted, and animus grew. In our lifetimes, we have often seen the Black-Jewish relationship negatively portrayed as one of patron and client, with Jews as the patrons and African Americans as the clients. This implies that this relationship was a one-way street. In fact, it always went both ways — in the fight to end segregation and dismantle racism in America, and when it came to support of Israel.

We have dedicated ourselves to overcoming the separation that has grown between Black people and Jews in America, tearing our two communities apart. It had already begun to fray by the time of King’s assassination in 1968 and, in the intervening years, we have witnessed a continued turning away from our shared history of slavery and oppression and our common biblical commitment to the prophetic traditions of justice and equality. We are carrying on our fathers’ legacy by telling the story of our shared history and using it as a bridge to a better future.


We want to bring our fathers’ much-needed messages and methods of love and unity to campuses experiencing turmoil. We want to bring together Zionist and pro-Palestinian protesters to find common ground.

We tried this spring. Unfortunately, the responses we received from the Black and Jewish professors and students we reached out to could best be summed up as, “There’s nobody to talk to on the other side” and, “Now is the wrong time.”

We disagree. And, this fall, we want to bring our messages to schools and communities across the country.

The original article has more information.

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