THE BLOG

Remembering the African-American/Jewish Coalition of Support for the March From Selma to Montgomery

03/05/2015 05:07 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

This weekend will mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights March From Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The events surrounding the march are the subject of the acclaimed motion picture Selma. When the film was first exhibited in several theaters throughout the nation, much of the media commentary focused on its depiction of the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson's support for or opposition to the march, the accuracy of the portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by the English actor David Oyelowo, and, finally, whether the film's African-American woman director, Ava DuVernay, should receive an Oscar.

Obscured and subordinated by most of the media commentary and talking heads' discussion was the strategic importance and role of religious and other leaders who came from around the nation to participate in and support the Voting Rights March. Of these, few were more important to and decisive in mobilizing public opinion in support of the march than leaders from the American Jewish community.

Ironically, it was this historic coalition that came to mind when I listened to and read the 24/7 media commentary around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent speech to Congress. In the days leading up to the speech, a virtual media firestorm occurred.

Support for Israel is and has been central to most Jews living within the United States. Knowing this has made me keenly aware of something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. On many college campuses over the past two years, a discernible, qualitatively new texture of criticism of Israel has been occurring among a significant number of students across our country. Much of this criticism, including from several Jewish students, arose in response to Prime Minister Netanyahu's expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and following the latest war in Gaza. On some college campuses, included in this new hostility toward Israel are efforts to initiate programs to delegitimize Israel within the international community of nations.

For those of us within the African-American community who, for many years, have been strong supporters of Israel, it was disheartening to see Prime Minister Netanyahu, a foreign leader, give an unprecedented speech to our Congress criticizing President Obama's ongoing negotiations with Iran. Equally discouraging was seeing and hearing AIPAC, the nation's largest Jewish lobbying organization, support and facilitate Prime Minister Netanyahu's condescending criticism of President Obama.

More ominous than anything else, however, was the protest by a substantial number of African-American members of Congress, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who decided to boycott Prime Minister Netanyahu's presence in Congress. They represent a substantial segment of the African-American community in America.

And what a historic irony: This weekend, just a few days after Netanyahu's speech, an estimated 90-plus members of Congress, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush are expected to travel to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights March.

This is indeed an important tribute. But for me, as someone who was there 50 years ago, the untold story about the march remains the historic and decisive role played by Jewish religious and community leaders from across America.

Today leaders of the Jewish community must understand that Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech "dissing" Obama turned off a lot of African-American leaders in and outside Congress. This creates a major challenge for those of us in the African-American community. We have to credibly and creatively prevent Netanyahu's speech to Congress from obscuring and diminishing the historic role that our Jewish brothers and sisters played in supporting our historic movement for civil rights, which transformed and redeemed the soul of America.

Rebuilding our earlier successful coalition is needed more than ever today, in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin by a vigilante in Sanford, Florida; police misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri (as described in this week's Justice Department report); the killing of Tamir Rice by police in Cleveland, Ohio; and the chokehold death of Eric Gardner at the hands of police in Staten Island, New York; to mention just a few troubling events.

This weekend we should all pause for a few moments to reflect on and remember the events of 50 years ago. Today, in the face of a growing threat from ISIS, African Americans and Jewish Americans may need each other more than ever, even more than we may currently understand.