Prof., MLK's daughter align to give speeches

by Christine Huggins | 4/5/06 5:00am

In 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Joshua Heschel, a Holocaust survivor and world-renowned Jewish theologian, marched for equality in Selma, Ala.

That relationship forged over 40 years ago by Heschel and King, in a way symbolic of a bond between the Jewish-American and African-American communities, has continued even after their deaths with the friendship of their daughters. This weekend, Yolanda King and Dartmouth religion professor Susannah Heschel will give a series of lectures in the San Francisco Bay Area to discuss their fathers, how they inspired others, how far society has come and how much farther it has to go.

Heschel grew up amidst the Civil Rights movement, and the movement's issues were "daily conversation" in her home. As well as marching with Dr. King in Selma, Rabbi Heschel was also instrumental in gaining support for the March on Washington at the 1963 National Conference of Religion and Race.

"It was on television," Professor Heschel said. "The Birmingham March, the water hoses turned on kids and all the efforts to integrate schools."

When asked about her memories of the movement, Heschel, who was young at the time, said that "those were dangerous times and frightening." But although it was a difficult time, she said, she remembers understanding that her father's decision to go south to march with Dr. King was the right one.

"I had a feeling that my father gave me that him going South and being involved in these demonstrations was one of the most important things a person could do and should do," Heschel said.

Although Heschel only met Dr. King a couple of times, she said she remembers him vividly.

"When Dr. King spoke he would quote the prophets, and what I loved was that you couldn't necessarily know which were his words and which were the prophets words because they were so similar. And it was as if the prophets were speaking today through him," said Heschel, who is the Eli Black Associate Professor of Jewish Studies.

Heschel said she hopes to inspire others by telling them of her father and of Dr. King because people who did not live through such trying times could benefit from hearing about these heroes.

"I think sometimes younger people who didn't live through those times may need to hear about people like that, who are in fact special," she said.

Heschel added that she hopes to inspire people to take action today through her stories of the past. The professor mentioned economic issues, environmental issues and "the use of the prison system as a racist method of eliminating African Americans from society" as among the most important facing the country today.

We cannot think "everything is settled," Heschel said. "As much as we need institutional and legal justice, we also need justice of the heart."

By speaking about her father and Dr. King, Heschel hopes to create a lecture that will challenge people to think critically.

Our fathers "still have moral authority and they still have the ability to inspire people," Heschel said. "I think for Yolanda and me to speak in their names carries some weight. I think their messages are pretty clear. And it is also clear to me that there is a lot of resistance."

The two women will have their three speaking engagements this weekend, one at Mills College Concert Hall, one at San Rafael Jewish Community Center and one at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto, Calif.