An interesting development happened this Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend: acclaimed African American scholar Michelle Alexander joined the long list of African American activists and intellectuals (Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, Robin Kelley, Cornel West, and more) as well as thousands of younger organizers (Black Lives Matter, Black for Palestine, Dream Defenders) who openly support Palestine, even as she indicated, in her New York Times Op-Ed, that she had been intimidated by the Israel Lobby into not expressing her views earlier. The timing was exquisite: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is generally a day when Zionists resurface quotes by the slain civil rights icon in which he expresses support and admiration for Israel. (Many of the quotes have never been confirmed, but verity has never been a Zionist concern). This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day events also coincide with the national Women’s March, whose leaders have been accused of anti-Semitism in attacks that revealed the deep angst of Zionists as they see their traditional allies, the (white) feminism movement, radicalized into a deeper analysis of oppression by the prominence of anti-Zionist women of color in national leadership roles. And it closely follows the unfortunate rescinding, by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, of an award honoring Angela Davis—an award she was stripped of because of her support for Palestinians and their call for BDS.
Alexander mentions she had not expressed her solidarity with Palestinians earlier, and that “Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.” Indeed, she was immediately vilified by pro-Israel commentators as sloppy in her scholarship, and accused of engaging in a “shameless revision of Martin Luther King’s history to re-imagine him as a late-blooming critic of Israel.”
There is, however, no need to rewrite history where Martin Luther King Jr. is involved, as we have ample documentation of the direction the civil rights leader was heading, one opposed to militarism and fascism globally, along with his unflinching commitment to end segregation and apartheid–two evils that have become the hallmark of modern-day Israel.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated less than a year after the June 1967 war, which resulted in Israel’s occupation of all of historic Palestine. Prior to his assassination he, like most African Americans, had approached Zionism from the perspective of an oppressed Diaspora people seeking full rights, a recognition of their humanity, safety from official as well as mob persecution. His support for Israel, then, was an expression of support for a disenfranchised people, the European Jews, who had suffered centuries of anti-Semitism. He had only ever once traveled to the region, in 1959.
By 1967, Dr. King was questioning his admiration for Israel, to the point of turning down an invitation to that country, because of his criticism of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Also shortly before his assassination, Dr. King was pointing out that revolutionary movements in Africa as well as Asia, meaning the decolonial movements he embraced, were siding with the Palestinian people. His analysis of injustice, once necessarily focused on the plight of African Americans, as he was a young minister immersed in difficult immediate circumstances, was rapidly becoming one of denouncing injustice globally. Speaking at an anti-Vietnam war rally in 1967, he declared: “I’m not only going to be concerned about justice for Negroes in the United States because I know that justice is indivisible, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I’m concerned about justice for everybody the world over.”
Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. was rapidly growing aware of historical parallels amongst different oppressed and disenfranchised communities, as well as amongst similar systems of oppression across different cultures and continents. He denounced ghettos in Europe and the US, and he would have denounced them in Israel, because “justice is indivisible.” He understood that separate can never be equal in the US and South Africa, and would have undoubtedly been outspoken against Israel’s recently-minted “nation state law,” which enshrines apartheid in historic Palestine, because “justice is indivisible.” He would have deplored Israel’s bombing of Palestinian villages, and its poisoning of Palestinian fields and farms, as he did the US attacks on Vietnam, when he wrote:
“They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals.”
Indeed, Dr. King would have understood that Israel today, with its segregated roads, its checkpoints and passes, its over fifty laws discriminating against one segment of the population, its need for an ever-greater and more brutal military to suppress grassroots non-violent resistance, is the twenty-first century’s manifestation of fascism and colonialism, which he always opposed. This is not a “rewriting of history,” it is an educated projection based on the civil rights leader’s well-documented views.
Martin Luther King Jr. also famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Today, we can honor his radical legacy by following in the footsteps of those who look up to him, a long and proud list of African American and other intellectuals, and by looking at the obvious destination of the “arc of moral justice” he told us about. Just like segregation had to be abolished in the US south, and apartheid in South Africa, so Israel’s basic law of “separate and unequal,” and its brutal oppression of the Palestinian people, must be challenged, denounced, abolished. We must speak out, despite the intimidation, and we must support those who do, because Dr. King told us that “silence is betrayal.” And we must enact our solidarity.
It is not mere coincidence that the Palestinian people’s choice of resistance, namely boycotts, is the one also embraced by Dr. King. The call for BDS was made because this is a time-tested strategy best suited for challenging state-sanctioned supremacy. It worked in the US South, it worked in South Africa, and it will work in Palestine.