Jews, African-Americans join to honor Dr. King’s legacy

The program included reflections on Dr. King's legacy and on the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities.

Jews, African-Americans Join to Honor Dr. King's Legacy photo

Faith leaders and elected officials in the African-American and Jewish communities join hands at the third-annual MLK Day program (Photo by Robert F. Kusel).

In a West Side Baptist church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once based his Chicago efforts, housed in what once was a synagogue in the heart of an Eastern European Jewish neighborhood, members of the city's Jewish and African-American communities came together Monday morning for a unique Martin Luther King Day program.

The third-annual event, titled Where are the Drum Majors? Strengthening the Bonds Between the African-American and Jewish Communities , was co-sponsored by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and the Lawndale community's Stone Temple Baptist Church, where the event took place, as well as The Firehouse Community Arts Center, Sinai Health System and the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society.

The program included reflections on Dr. King's legacy and on the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities, as well as performances by the Kenwood Academy Concert Choir.

"Dr. King's vision of a just world has always resonated strongly with the Jewish community," said David T. Brown, Chairman of JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council.  "Dr. King asked us to look out for our fellow man, to be our brother's keeper, and to join him as drum majors in the pursuit of full equality and justice for all humankind. We reaffirm our commitment to supporting each other on this important day."  Watch Brown's remarks .

Featured speakers at the event included faith leaders and elected officials from both communities, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has deep family connections to the neighborhood.

Stars of David still adorn Stone Temple Baptist Church, recalling the time when North Lawndale was home to so many Jews that it was known as "Chicago Jerusalem," and was the early stomping ground of Jewish leaders such as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and musician Benny Goodman. The church also served as a base for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s affordable housing campaign in the late 1960s. In tribute to this extraordinary history and Stone Temple's continued strong presence in the community, efforts are currently underway to recognize the building as a Chicago historic landmark.

Jewish and Christian faith leaders in attendance called upon their communities to come together in support of one another year round -- not just one day a year.

"Do not let today be the only time you speak to one another," said Bishop Derrick M. Fitzpatrick of Stone Temple, who announced upcoming plans for joint activities with Stone Temple and JUF ranging from student visits to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the DuSable Museum of African American History, a spoken word night, a youth roundtable discussion on street violence, and a historical bus tour of the North Lawndale neighborhood. Watch Fitzpatrick's speech .

"When racial tension is at an all-time high, who's going to stand up? Who's going to step up? Who's going to speak up?" challenged Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church. "Blacks and Jews: Let's support both of our communities. Let's make sure we come out to each other's communities and help each other out for real."

"We have too much in common -- too much to offer each other -- to not stand and walk together," added Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue.

"What we need today is more drum majors who are willing to serve on both sides of each other's drum lines," said Rabbi Shoshanah Conover  of Temple Sholom.

The event also featured remarks by Debra Wesley , president of Sinai Community Institute -- a JUF affiliate. Wesley spoke about Sinai's innovative work with the Israeli-based organization NATAL to bring Israeli trauma care expertise to Chicago's South and West Side victims of violence.

"Where are the drum majors? Well, I am proud to say that for nearly 100 years, Sinai Health System has been a drum major," said Wesley. "We embrace the Jewish spirit of tikkun olam, repairing the world."

Prior to the event, volunteers from both communities took part in a special service program cooking and serving breakfast to members of the North Lawndale neighborhood.

"I like volunteering to stay active," said Madeline Kochman, of Forest Park, who volunteered through JUF's TOV Volunteer Network. "I'm a first-generation Romanian Jew so it's especially meaningful to be here volunteering in what used to be a Romanian Jewish neighborhood."

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Cook County Commissioners Richard Boykin and Robert Steele, Commissioner of Water Reclamation District Debra Shore, Alderman Michael Scott, Jr., Pastor Phil Jackson of the Firehouse Community Arts Center, Blanche Killingsworth of the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society, Claude Robinson of UCAN, and North Lawndale student Anthony Bush also spoke at Monday's program.

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