Martin Luther King and the war in Palestine: What would MLK say?

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MLK at Heathrow Airport London in 1964

The most ironic and egregious moment in the universe occurs when a man totally given to nonviolent means of solving human problems ends up dying from the impact of a bullet fired from an assassin’s gun.

Martin Luther King was fated for  such a moment on April 4, 1968, as was his second-most influential role model and exemplar,  Mahatma Gandhi – man of peace, respecter of all forms of life, father of a free India – assassinated January 30, 1948 by Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse. It is noteworthy, too, that Israel’s icon of peace, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an enemy of the barbarous Benjamin Netanyahu, was assassinated November 4, 1995 by a Netanyahu supporter, less than a year after the Oslo Peace Accord was signed by Israel and the PLO on September 13, 1994. 

Comedian Amy Schumer achieved her 15 minutes of glory in the political spotlight after she resorted to Instagram on Oct. 30 of last year in an attempt to exploit Martin Luther King’s 50-year-old statements in support of a once weak Israel. “The whole world must see that Israel must exist and has the right to exist and is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world,” Shumer quoted King.

The Israel that King spoke of learned in later years how to don the mantle of victimhood while ploughing bulldozers over the fields, the houses and the bodies of Palestinians who still lay bleeding and screaming on the ground after incessant and horrendous  rounds of indiscriminate bombing.

While Israel’s white phosphorous bombs burned away the skin of Palestinian infants and toddlers in the streets of northern Gaza, Schumer dismissed any of her peers in the world of show business who disagreed with her as antisemites.

MLK’s daughter Bernice responded almost immediately, wagging a scolding finger in Schumer’s court jester’s face. 

 “Certainly, my father was against antisemitism, as am I,” Bernice King, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, wrote in a thread on X (formerly Twitter). “He also believed militarism (along with racism and poverty) to be among the interconnected Triple Evils. I am certain he would call for Israel’s bombing of Palestinians to cease, for hostages to be released and for us to work for true peace, which includes justice.”

King’s daughter went on to say: “I… passionately urge a ceasefire and immediate deployment to Gaza of additional, crucial life-saving supplies at the scale needed. We can’t wait.”

Schumer, the cousin of Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, wasn’t about to listen to reason, whether from King’s own bloodline or otherwise. She kept firing in all directions at anyone who challenged her specious reasoning. 

“Jewish people are the only group not allowed to defend themselves,” Schumer said, unaware of Israel (pop. 7.2 million) owning the fourth strongest military in the world after the USA, Russia, and China. And she was always anxious to stomp on the hands of  the little guy who’s fighting back against Israel’s genocidal war machine. “This has nothing to do with the occupation. Hamas don’t (sic.) want an end to occupation. They want to eradicate Israel.”

There is no end to the false propaganda about Hamas’s Oct.  7 “murder” of 1400, now 1200, 40 babies with slit throats, innumerable rapes and mutilation of Jewish women in the camps and open fields just outside Gaza. All of this has been exposed as wartime propaganda or outright fabrications from a thoroughly manipulative Israeli war machine.

The Israeli Newspaper Haaretz reported that the police could find no witnesses or gather forensic evidence “of any form of sexual assault.”  President Joe Biden’s claims that he had seen with his own eyes pictures of the 40 beheaded babies also turned out to be patently false.

New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander says this kind of delusion is nothing new for Biden. She recalled a speech Biden made from the Senate floor in June 1986. “He said defiantly, ‘If we look at the Middle East, I think it’s about time we stop apologizing for our support for Israel. There is no apology to be made. None. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect our interests in the region. The United States would have to go out and invent an Israel.’” 

Modern  propaganda and public relations operate on the basis of two key principles: 1) Define the situation; and 2) Control the language. That has been the course of most news reports since the first announcement of the October 7 attack.


King’s biographer, Taylor Branch, devotes a critical chapter in Parting the Waters to the relationship between King and Reinhold Niebuhr, the most influential Protestant theologian and philosopher in the United States as King rose to fame.  King had some remote links to Niebuhr from his school years, and he became a devoted acolyte of the philosopher in his professional life. 

MLK’s father was a Morehouse trustee and a close associate of Morehouse president Benjamin Mays.  Mays, himself, had earned such a reputation as a theologian that Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, perhaps the second most influential of American theologians, included him in the private brain trust they had created to address the great issues of God and mankind.  Mays became president of Morehouse in 1940, the same year that MLK Jr. enrolled in the Atlanta University Laboratory School. King enrolled at Morehouse at age 15.  He went on to graduate school at Boston University, where he earned his PhD.

“During my last year in theological school, I began to read the works of Reinhold Niebuhr,” King said.“After reading Niebuhr, I tried to arrive at a realistic pacifism,” he said. 

“King always claimed to have been much more influenced by Niebuhr than by Gandhi,” Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said. “He considered his nonviolent technique to be a Niebuhrian strategy of power. And whenever there was a conversation about power, Niebuhr came up. Niebuhr kept us from being naïve about the evil structures of  society. He even embraced Niebuhr’s skeptical view of pacifism.”


In his March 2019 study, “Where MLK Really Stood on Israel and the Palestinians,” historian Martin Kramer analyzes the close relationship between Niebuhr’s and King’s pro-Israel stance. 

“Niebuhr expressed sympathy for Zionism as early as 1929,” Kramer says. “And in 1942 he founded the Christian Council on Palestine, a pro-Zionist association that grew to include thousands of (mostly Protestant) clergymen. In 1946, he testified in favor of a Jewish state before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine.

“Niebuhr supported both the establishment of Israel and its right to defend itself,” Kramer said. “The fact that the Arabs have a vast hinterland in the Middle East and the fact that the Jews have nowhere to go, establishes the relative justice of their claims and of their cause.” 

And in the 1967 Six-Day War, he justified Israel’s preemptive action, saying, “Obviously a nation that knows that it is in danger of strangulation will use its fists.” 

Shortly after the war, he backed Israel’s unilateral unification of Jerusalem.


King essentially adopted Niebuhr’s view and, when asked, was never hesitant in giving his  unequivocal support for Israel.  But he also counseled peace as the most important condition for Arab and Jew alike. 

“What is basic and what is needed in the Middle East is peace,” King told the National Rabbinical Assembly on March 25, 1968, only 10 days before he was assassinated. “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. On the other hand, we must see what peace for the Arabs means in a real sense of security on another level. 

“Peace for the Arabs means the kind of economic security that they so desperately need. These nations…are part of that Third World of hunger, of disease, of illiteracy. I think that as long as these conditions exist there will be tensions, there will be the endless quest to find scapegoats.”

King concluded that “there is a need for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, where we lift those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and bring them into the mainstream of economic security.” 


It helps to recall that King’s rise to the top of the Civil Rights Movement came at about the same time as the plan for a Palestine state was being advanced. Palestinian Arabs had rejected the 42 percent of the land given them under the 1947 Mandate. But Palestinian Jews, on the other hand, were very happy with the 56 percent of the territory given them by the same mandate. Two percent of the territory was for the administration and governance of the land. Israel declared its statehood on May 14, 1948.  

The West Bank and Jerusalem had been seized by the king of Jordan. The temporary All Palestine Government was set up in Gaza, under the governance of Egypt but always with the goal of establishing a self-governing Palestinian state. 

In 1952, with the successful Egyptian Revolution and rise of Nasser, the Arab League placed Palestine under the official administration of Egypt. The Suez War of 1956 resulted in the All Palestine Government gaining official sovereignty in Gaza. 

After the establishment of the United Arab Republic in June 1959,  Egypt’s Nasser annulled the All Palestine government and laid plans for a new Palestinian government that would fight for the liberation of the Palestinian territory.

It was only in 1964 that the Arab League initiated the creation of an organization representing the Palestinian people. The Palestinian National Council convened in Jerusalem on May 28, 1964, and four days later, on June 2, 1964, the PLO was founded. The Six-Day War of June 1967 brought an abrupt, though temporary, halt to all of these plans. 


King and his wife, Coretta, visited India, the land of Gandhi, in February 1959. They also visited Jerusalem on the way back to the USA. 

According to Martin Kramer, King asked to meet with local Arabs of distinction to hear their points of view. A private dinner with five Palestinians was arranged at the National Restaurant in Jerusalem. Their talk would not have been about the “occupation” or about Israeli settlements, Kramer says. “This…was a full eight years before the 1967 war, and at the time both eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank belonged to Jordan. Instead, King’s hosts would have tried to impress upon him the injustice inflicted by the creation of Israel itself in 1948, culminating in the dispossession of the people.”

King was scheduled to hold a massive Christian religious ceremony at the Mount of Olives in November 1967 that would have brought as many as 15,000 Americans to the Holy Land. But just months before that event, the Six-Day War broke out.  King called off the gathering and it was never rescheduled. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968. 

King’s last known remarks on Israel, spoken in March 1968, followed the line set by Niebuhr, strongly favoring Israel while only minimally acknowledging the needs of the Palestinians, Kramer said. 

“Peace for Israel means security,” King said, “And we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.”

Michelle Alexander, however, believes that if King had the opportunity to study the current situation in Palestine the same way he had studied the war in Vietnam, “his unequivocal opposition to violence, colonialism, racism, and militarism would have made him an incisive critic of Israel’s current policies.”

Alexander says King’s great legacy is that he was right that our conscience must leave us no other choice than to speak out.  

“We must speak,” she says. “When the oppressed, the poor, the weak are under attack, when their homes are stolen or demolished, when they are forced to migrate and to live in unspeakable conditions, in open-air prisons, concentration camps, perpetually as refugees under occupation, we must speak. We must speak when Jewish children are brutally killed in the name of liberation, when antisemitism and Islamophobia slip in through the back door of supposedly progressive spaces. When Palestinian children in refugee camps are bombed and killed, when schools and hospitals and entire neighborhoods are laid waste, we must speak.”

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Martin Luther King and the war in Palestine: What would MLK say?

By Earnest McBride
January 15, 2024