A look at some of the most inspiring quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A partnership in Phoenix is celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by uniting Jewish and African-American communities and recognizing that their people share a past and present rife with prejudice.
The coalition of community groups will be screening the documentary “Strange Fruit” Monday evening, followed by a discussion on the shared history of African-American and Jewish American life.
“What we want to do is facilitate a conversation, and a conversation that’s often fraught with some tension, if had at all,” said Neal Lester, a professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.
“Strange Fruit” addresses American race relations from both an African-American and Jewish perspective, Lester said.
A song shared by a Jewish teacher and an African-American jazz singer
The documentary traces the history of “Strange Fruit,” a poem written by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol to protest American racism and African-American lynchings.
Meeropol, a poet and social activist, was inspired to write the song after witnessing a photograph of a lynching. The photograph was taken in 1930 of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, who were lynched in Marion, Indiana.
The poem was made famous by singer Billie Holiday and has since been performed by various African-American musicians.
In 1938, Holiday became the first African-American woman to work with a white orchestra. One year later, her label, Columbia Records, would refuse her request to record “Strange Fruit.”
Major record labels feared losing sales in the South. Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” with Commodore Records, recognized as America’s first independent jazz record label.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Time magazine called Holiday’s haunting ballad the song of the century. It has sold millions of copies.
The song has spurred understanding, Lester said.
“What it shows is that people don’t have to experience something that is morally corrupt and unforgivable in order to step in and do something about it,” Lester said.
Discrimination, empathy unite two communities on MLK Day
The screening on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center ties African-American and Jewish communities’ past and present struggles for justice, civil rights and equality.
“(That) becomes the very embodiment of empathy and … the capacity for all of us to step outside of ourselves and take risks to help someone,” Lester said. “And that, to me, embodies what King’s legacy is … looking at this through the lens of someone else’s experiences and jumping in to be an ally.”
Lawrence Bell, who has a history doctorate from Ohio State University and serves as executive director of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, said the event is an opportunity to celebrate King’s legacy and facilitate a dialogue between two communities that share a history of injustice yet have sometimes struggled to find common ground.
“There was this common experience of discrimination, so we related to each other. And I think there was some genuine sympathy and affection between the two communities,” Bell said. “The goal here is to create engagement, and hopefully people can begin a conversation with one another again.”
Lester and Bell said the screening will be the first in the beginning of an ongoing partnership and series.
The screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center, a former synagogue and church that now serves as a museum and cultural center, at 122 E. Culver St. Limited seating is available and an RSVP is required to attend.
Reporter Dianna M. Náñez contributed to this article.
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