Martin Luther King Day


Martin Luther King, Jr. is well known as a great civil rights leader birthday, with his birthday celebrated each year because he actually changed the world. But, how is he connected to the Refusenik movement? In this lesson, students will consider the connections between the civil rights movement, Jewish values, and the struggle for Soviet Jewry.


Students will:

  • Draw parallels between the civil rights movement and the struggle for Soviet Jewry
  • Recognize civil rights as a Jewish value


1. Trigger

  • Begin by using the MLK photograph to trigger discussion about activism, injustice, and fighting for the rights of others. Use these topics of conversation as a lead-in to looking critically at the Jewish texts and our responsibilities toward others.

  • Ask the students: Did you know that one-half to two-thirds of all white people in the civil rights movement were Jews? Leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations (i.e. American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Conservative movement’s Synagogue Council of America) rallied against segregation and Jim Crow laws.

2. Text Study: Read the texts in the provided text sheet. This will help provide context to the discussion below.

3. Text Study Guided Discussion

  • What are some of the common themes between the civil rights movement and Jewish values?

  • What are some of the common themes between the civil rights movement and the struggle for Soviet Jews?

  • Do you think that there is a danger in today’s society of becoming an oppressor because you do not know what it is like to be a stranger, as Rabbi Sacks suggests? If so, what society or sector of society is at risk?

  • What was Martin Luther King trying to express in his speech addressing Soviet Jews? How is this plight similar or different to that of the experience of African Americans at the time?

4. MLK Speech Review:

There is a speech Dr. King wrote on behalf of Soviet Jews. In December 1966, on Hanukkah, the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry was having a nationwide organizing conference call and invited Dr. King to speak over the phone, an offer he gladly accepted. What followed was a rousing address on behalf of what he called a “withered and restricted Jewish community.”

“Individual Jews,” Dr. King said in his comments, “may in the main be physically and economically secure in Russia, but the absence of opportunity to associate as Jews in the enjoyment of Jewish culture and religious experience becomes a severe limitation upon an individual.”

You can read the address and the history of how it came together here, here, and here

5. Conclusion

Black slaves in plantations often sang spirituals as they worked in the fields. The songs gave them hope and helped to pass the time during grueling work. Many of these songs are connected to the Israelites’ slavery and then exit from Egypt. Although most slaves were Christians at this point, this Bible story held great meaning for them. You can read about some of their songs here.

Share with your students and watch the video below. The connection between the Jewish community and the African American community was recently celebrated by two singing groups, The Maccabeats and Naturally 7 – Shed a Little Light – MLK Jr. Day – (James Taylor Cover)

6. Ideas for Extension

  • Were there others (besides Jewish communities throughout the world) who came to the aid of Soviet Jews? What were the guiding principles or values that led them to do so?

  • Can you think of other historical examples (or even a current example) where people from a different country, religion, or belief system came to the aid of others?

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