By Daniel Rosen, President of the American Jewish Congress

Published originally in the New York Daily News.

Sixty years ago today, on June 21, 1964, Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney were brutally killed in what came to be known as the “Mississippi Burning” murders.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan ambushed, abducted and shot them at point-blank range while they were working during the “Freedom Summer” to register disenfranchised African-Americans in Mississippi to vote. The murders galvanized the nation, ultimately leading to the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Goodman and Schwerner, two young Jewish men from New York, along with Chaney, a Black civil rights activist from Mississippi, gave their lives together in the struggle for Black freedom. Buried in the riveting message that their camaraderie carried for the civil rights movement is another fact that might surprise some younger generations today.

The largest manifestation of liberty and equality in America after independence was shaped by the alliance between the Black and Jewish communities, a partnership that has deteriorated sharply in recent times, particularly in the anti-Israel protests we witness today in so many American cities.

The bonds between the two communities are deeply organic. In his 1958 speech to the national convention of the American Jewish Congress, Dr. Martin Luther King eloquently captured this unity: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

In 1963, just before King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, it was a rabbi, Dr. Joachim Prinz, then-president of the American Jewish Congress, who addressed the crowd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The sequence of speakers was deliberate.

In those years, Jewish activists marched alongside Black protesters, picketed segregated establishments, and were instrumental in litigating against the racism embedded in the American legal system and government. Jewish lawyers and activists worked tirelessly to end prejudice and co-authored landmark legislation to end housing and workplace discrimination.

The partnership was not just strategic but moral, rooted in a profound understanding of each other’s historical traumas and shared aspirations for a more just and equal society.

However, this constructive symbiosis appears to be in tatters. Many Black activists have in recent times embraced antisemitic rhetoric, causing considerable anguish and confusion among Jewish allies. The current war in the Middle East has provided fodder for misguided accusations depicting the Jewish state as a “racist” enterprise. Israel has been accused of “colonialism,” “apartheid,” and “genocide.”

This strain in the Black-Jewish relationship comes at a critical juncture in our nation’s history. Social polarization, racism and hate have beset America, while political divisions, amplified by social media information and disinformation, are making it more and more difficult to define a national purpose.

In the past, the Black-Jewish alliance was one that was able to define an overarching goal, to the benefit of both communities and America as a whole. We must do that again.

First, we must cultivate constructive dialogues between minority communities across the country. This should begin in the form of in-person and online roundtable discussions headed by elected officials, and religious and community leaders, providing a legitimate platform to air grievances and hear from one another in a trust- and consensus-building fashion.

Hate and hate-based crimes continue to be a shared concern, on which we can do much more together. We have seen how conspiracy theories that are rooted in white supremacist and antisemitic beliefs have led to racist violence against Black and Jewish Americans alike. Our communities must come together to push back against the rise of hatred.

In addition, we need to reinvigorate and open new centers in our universities and schools promoting teaching on Black-Jewish relations. Dillard University, a historically Black college, decided to relaunch its defunct national center that promoted research on the alliance between the two communities. This decision was made months before Oct. 7. The school’s initiative provides a model for other universities to follow.

When the Black and the Jewish communities talked to each other, we had the power to lift each other up. The work and legacy of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney exemplifies that. Let’s resume the old embrace again as we acknowledge our debt to those brave young men, a Black man and two Jews who died for a free America.

Rosen is the president of the American Jewish Congress.

© 2020 American Jewish Congress.