Martin Luther King, Jr. felt uneasy as he and his wife, Coretta, landed in Jerusalem in the winter of 1959. They had come from Lebanon and were eager to see the Old City’s Christian holy sites. But it troubled King that Jerusalem was divided, the western part controlled by Israel and the eastern part by Jordan. “And so this was a strange feeling to go to the ancient city of God and see the tragedies of man’s hate and his evil, which causes him to fight and live in conflict,” he recalled.
It was in this tense political climate that King and his wife toured the Old City, as well as Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, and the Samaria region, all of which were part of Jordan at the time. He would later call the trip “one of the most important occasions of my life.”
The details of King’s only visit to the Holy Land, which has nearly been forgotten by history, are contained in a sermon he delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL on Easter Sunday, 1959. He spoke about strolling through “those little narrow streets” in the Old City and following the stations of the cross, about seeing the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the ancient walls of Jericho, and the Jordan River. He also spoke about the joy of interacting with people “of all races and all cultures” on his travels through the land.
Prior to the Six-Day War, King was an outspoken supporter of Israel, which he famously called “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.” After the war, in which Israel reunited Jerusalem and captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights, King expressed reservations about travelling to the country and having to defend its actions during the war. He feared doing so would alienate his supporters in Africa and the Arab world. “I don’t think I could come out unscathed,” he fretted to an adviser in a phone conversation recorded by the FBI.
Israel had extended several invitations to King during the 1960s to visit the Jewish state as part of a wider effort to strengthen ties with the African American community. King accepted at least two official invitations but backed out both times. He also agreed to lead an interfaith pilgrimage of 600 to Israel in November 1967, but that didn’t pan out either. He was assassinated the following year.
Ultimately, King’s failure to step foot in the State of Israel did not diminish his legacy in the eyes of most Israelis. His leadership during the civil rights movement has inspired generations of Israeli activists, from the Mizrachi Jews who fought for better housing and jobs during the 1970s to the Ethiopian Israelis who, more recently, have demonstrated in the streets of Tel Aviv against police brutality and discrimination. The Knesset has recognized Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and there is a forest in the Galilee that was planted in his honor.
One can’t help but wonder, if King were alive and visited Israel today, what would he think?
One hint comes from Clarence B. Jones, one of King’s lawyers and closest advisors. Jones has said that he believes King would not shy away from criticizing Israel over specific policies, but that he would not stand for efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state. “No African-American leader of national stature was more passionate, privately and publicly, in fostering a working coalition with the Jewish community and his support for the State of Israel,” Jones said of King in 2014. (Jones will be speaking in San Francisco on Feb. 18 at an event co-sponsored by Be’chol Lashon. More information will be available soon at bechollashon.org.)
No doubt, King would be disappointed that peace between Israel and the Palestinians still has not been achieved. And he would likely be troubled by the poor treatment of the thousands of African refugees who were denied asylum, held in detention centers in the Negev, and are now being told to return to either their home countries or a third country by April or face jail time. (The government considers the refugees to be economic migrants who entered the country illegally.)
But he would be amazed at the diversity of the country’s population: that Jews from Morocco live next to Jews from Yemen and India and Ethiopia and Iran and France, among other places. And he would marvel that Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, Hebrew Israelites, Samaritans, and Circassians have also found a home in Israel—a place that one day might truly be, in King’s words, “an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”