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Buber and King

50 years after his death, archival findings support that Martin Luther King was very much inspired by a Jewish philosopher of religion.


One of the key documents of the American civil rights movement is "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written by Martin Luther King during a prison term in April 1963. Here, King argues for nonviolent resistance as the best defense against racism. Earlier this month, he had been arrested during demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. Supporters succeeded in smuggling a newspaper into the prison where he could read the white racists' call to stand together against the civil rights defenders. King decided on the spot to write an answer, and he did this on strips of newsprint, which were smuggled out and pieced together for the namesake document. Behind the barracks in Birmingham, Martin Luther King acknowledged a spiritual debt to the religious philosopher Martin Buber, who was then professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In key passages in the letter, he cited Buber's famous essay "Ich und Du" from 1923, which is about existence and coexistence.

The King – Buber connection. But very apropos yet another close connection between the two has come for a day. Earlier this year, a letter was found in the National Archives in Jerusalem. It is dated August 15, 1957 and styled for Buber. Among the co-signatories is King, who here urges Buber, along with a group of prominent personalities around the world, to back up a protest against the South African apartheid regime. "With great concern, we have considered the South African government's consistent persecution of official racism (apartheid)," the letter states. "It has violated the most basic considerations of human dignity in its treatment of African and Asian citizens, loosely termed non-whites. Our concern has turned to horror as we have gained knowledge about the treatment of these non-white South Africans and the spread of totalitarian control to almost every part of human existence. ”

In many ways, it is not surprising that King and Buber were able to find a common foundation of values.

Milestone in the fight against apartheid. Martin Buber received the letter at an address in Munich, where he held an academic position at the time. We can also see that he signed immediately, because a little later letter has also been found, now addressed to Buber's address in Jerusalem, where Martin Luther King thanks him for joining. It also points out that the invitation has been followed by prominent people in 38 different countries. The current backdrop for Martin Luther King's initiative was that the South African government had arrested 156 opposition leaders and accused them of high treason for posing as a spokesman for a democratic, multi-ethnic community. The case has come as a milestone in the fight against apartheid because it has given it a completely different international attention.

Kings parallel between the southern states and South Africa. However, King's own involvement in the case goes back a little further. As early as 1940, his father, who was also pastor, invited South African opposition leaders to come and speak at his church in Atlanta, and it was this that aroused his young interest. By that time, the Nazis had already passed the Nuremberg Laws, and a connection was formed at King Jr. In any case, for years he struck a parallel between the racial segregation in the US southern states and the state of South Africa, and with Rosa Parks and the bus boycott of Montgomery in 1955 he was ready to take the initiative for the international condemnation of the apartheid regime in 1957. It is here , Martin Buber comes into the picture.

I and you. Buber was born in Vienna in 1878 and had his very own view of Zionism. Already in the 1920s he spoke of a binational state where Jews should live in peace and tolerance with their Arab neighbors, and it is also this basic idea that is expressed in his thoughts on Ich und Du. It's about the relationship between two people. The meeting between two people is not a relationship, but a relationship based on equality and reciprocity, Buber said. The same goes for the individual's god relationship. The contradiction to this is called in his thinking I – that where the counterpart thus becomes an object whereby the reciprocity disappears.

This fit into Martin Luther King's thinking, and consequently he frequently referred to "Ich und du" as he wrote in the Birmingham Jail. Six years later, when he wanted to create international interest in the fight against apartheid, it was therefore natural to recruit Martin Buber. Furthermore, King knew well that American Jews already played a major role in the civil rights movement. In many ways, it is not surprising that the two found a common foundation of values. Buber had left Europe in 1937, as a refugee for Nazism, and this experience had also shaped his thinking.

For years, King drew a parallel between the racial divide in the American southern states and the state of South Africa.

Israeli development support for the apartheid opposition. But there is one more element that made Buber an interesting person. After all, he had become an Israeli, and at that time, in the early 1960s, Israel had very close relations with several of the young African states. Israel provided extensive development support to what Africa wanted otherwise, which was in sharp opposition to the apartheid regime. And so it goes without saying that the fight against apartheid went well with Buber's other public activities. He was known for giving good advice on how people could live together in a better way in this world, so he would surely have been sad to miss this chance to make his contribution to an important movement.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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