Were he alive today, Dr Martin Luther King Jr would be celebrating his 89th birthday next Monday, 15 January. Instead, Americans across the country that he influenced so profoundly will commemorate his life and legacy with a Federal holiday.
Born one year after King’s 1968 assassination, I possess no memories of his role in the modern American civil-rights movement. But everything that I’ve learned has been accentuated by two American Jews whose lives intersected with both King’s and mine: my mother’s Aunt Esther and my father’s mentor Abraham (Abe) Briloff.
A New Yorker from her childhood immigration in 1920 until she died in 2005, Esther taught me about “social justice” long before I encountered the term. I cannot remember when I didn’t know that she “marched with Dr King” in the South. I’ve always perceived her action, as a “white” Jewish woman, as exceptional (and exceptionally brave). But, eventually, I realised that, for Esther, marching was a simple matter of doing what was right — and following her hero’s example.
Esther, who had no children of her own, shared an extraordinarily close relationship with my mother. Esther’s most prized possessions — including the title page of her copy of King’s 1963 Why We Can’t Wait, which he autographed for her— are now my mother’s. This Shabbat, as she does every year at this time, Mom will lend this precious item to our synagogue as part of the annual congregational commemoration of King’s life and leadership — which includes a speaker sponsored by my parents in Aunt Esther’s memory.
Our family also treasures the memory of Abe Briloff, whose fourth yarzheit was observed a few weeks ago. My father was a student at The City University of New York in the 1960s when he met this distinguished professor of accountancy who would come to mean so much to him professionally and personally.
Dad didn’t realise at first how many other people already relied on Abe’s integrity and intellect — including the acclaimed entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, and Belafonte’s close friend: Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
As my father later learned — and, as Belafonte recounts in his 2011 memoir — Abe played a small but significant cameo in the events surrounding King’s famous arrest and incarceration in Birmingham, Alabama, in April 1963.
“As always when Martin was jailed,” Belafonte’s book explains, “my first call was to [King’s wife] Coretta, to sympathise with her and to see what I could do for her.” Hearing a lot of household noise on the other end, and aware that Mrs King had only recently given birth to her fourth child, Belafonte asked who was helping her at home. Mrs King answered she was alone; her husband didn’t believe they could afford to hire anyone. Besides, people would think that, with staff, the Kings were “living too high”.
“I knew what Martin earned as preacher: about $6,000 to $7,000 a year,” writes Belafonte, which, “even in 1963,” wasn’t much. Belafonte decided to act: “‘From this moment on,’ I told her, ‘you’re going to have a housekeeper and a secretary, and I want you to identify a driver who can take you wherever you need to go. And if anyone wants to know how you can afford that, you just say Harry’s paying.’”
Belafonte writes that he “felt pretty good” about this arrangement — “until my accountant, Abe Briloff, saw the entry in my accounting books. ‘You can’t have these people on the company payroll,’ he told me. ‘They don’t work for your entertainment company; you can’t deduct their wages from your taxes. If you want these people to work for the Kings, you have to pay them out of your pocket, after taxes, 100 per cent.’” Belafonte followed Abe’s advice.
“Not long after,” Belafonte’s story continues, “Martin was audited.” The auditors wanted to know how King was paying his staff. King told them. “In a matter of hours, there were two IRS [Internal Revenue Service] guys in my New York office,” Belafonte recalled. “Abe produced the records — taxes paid on the money I paid them, staff withholding taxes paid, too. It was all 100 per cent clean.” Much to the agents’ disappointment — what a coup it would have been for them to have uncovered anything remotely questionable connected to Martin Luther King.
In the vast history of King’s life and legacy, Aunt Esther and Abe Briloff may be small footnotes. But in ways that far transcend what I have able to share in the space of this column, these two people who touched my life embodied courage, justice, and righteousness: They embodied — up close and personal — the spirit of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.