Years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin (the great African American activist and close associate of both King and Joachim Prinz) spoke at a gathering in honor of Rabbi Joachim Prinz. We found a recording of Rustin’s speech on an old cassette tape in Prinz’s collection at the American Jewish Archives; as far as we know, it has never been published. Rustin meditated on the relationship between African American and Jewish narratives, and his words provide a fitting reflection for Jewish groups that are gathering to remember Martin Luther King, Jr and what his legacy asks of us. Here's a selection from what Rustin said:

Martin Luther King’s greatest sermons always said, “Fear not; for as sure as Moses liberated the Jews from Egypt, you, too, will be free.” I shall never forget the night that Martin spoke in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to the greatest group of ladies, lords, ladies, commoners, workers, that had ever gathered in that cathedral, so that there were 5,000 outside that could not get in. And the Canon of the cathedral said to Martin, “How are you sure that you will win this battle?” And Martin said, “As sure as Moses delivered the children of Israel, we shall be free.”

Over and over again, the freedom that we have proclaimed has not been based on the Christian New Testament; it has been based on the Jewish experience. Can you wrestle with angels? Yes; because the Jews wrestled with angels.

Now, for this very reason, the relationship of Blacks and Jews in this country is not something that is political, or social. It is the basis of a common philosophy that ultimately God will not be fooled, nor will God fool you.

(singing)

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land,

Tell old Pharaoh,

to let my people go.

Thus saith the Lord, old Moses said,

Let my people go.

If not, I’ll strike your firstborn dead,

Let my people go.

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land,

Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.

"And as surely," Rustin said, "on the basis of that experience, that God freed the Jews, he will free us [African Americans]. The Jews are the harbinger of freedom—not because Jews deserve it, but because God revealed to them the Commandments, and revealed to them the writings in the Torah. There is no escape. You are central; you will remain so. There is no escape from being what history has made the Jewish people."

 American Jewish Congress member holds sign at Montgomery March, 1965. Photograph, American Jewish Historical Society, 1965.

American Jewish Congress member holds sign at Montgomery March, 1965. Photograph, American Jewish Historical Society, 1965.