The president-elect’s inaugural committee has asked Jewish groups to make black-Jewish dialogue and joint outreach to the poor a focus of Martin Luther King Day commemorations Jan. 19. Renewing the classic civil rights alliance is part of the inauguration’s “big picture,” a senior inauguration official told JTA.
The emphasis comes after a bruising campaign in which Jewish voters were targeted by anonymous campaigns attempting to depict Obama as a secret Muslim, as well as conservatives who questioned the candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides. It also comes after decades of mistrust fueled by disagreements over affirmative action, Israel’s relationship with South Africa and outright expressions of hostility from prominent black figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.
Obama, who has strong ties with influential members of the Chicago Jewish community, made it clear during the campaign that the alliance which helped bring about civil-rights change in the 1960s was a central focus of his Jewish outreach.
Invoking this alliance was a linchpin of his speech in May to thousands of members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where references to domestic policy often fall flat. Not so with Obama: The Washington convention center filled with cheers when he invoked the memories of the three civil-rights volunteers — two Jews and an African American — who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964.
“In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish and African Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder,” Obama said. “They took buses down south together. They marched together. They bled together. And Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were willing to die alongside a black man — James Chaney — on behalf of freedom and equality.”
A few months earlier, during a speech at last year’s commemoration of the King holiday at the slain civil-rights leader’s church in Atlanta, Obama criticized anti-immigrant and anti-gay sentiment in some corners of the black community. He also lamented that the “scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community.”
Throughout his campaign, Obama made his desire to bridge the divide a focus of his talks with Jewish leaders, said Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s national civil-rights director.