King, Heschel daughters to speak in Bay Area

It was one of the iconic images of the Civil Rights era: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm in Selma, Ala., as state troopers attacked. The two symbolized a bond between Jews and African Americans.

The bond may have frayed since that winter’s day in 1965. But the daughters of both men refuse to let the dream die. Yolanda King and Susannah Heschel took divergent paths in life, both are committed to the missions of their fathers.

King and Heschel will make multiple joint appearances in the Bay Area next week, including engagements at the Osher Marin JCC and Palo Alto’s Congregation Etz Chayim.

King is eager to share her insights with Bay Area audiences. “I imagine we will be sharing some of the lessons we both have learned from our father’s legacies,” she says, “and how they influenced and inspired each other.”

Adds Heschel: “I’ll talk about how my father came to meet her father, their theological affinities, how he got involved with the civil rights movement and what it meant to him.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the great Jewish theologians of the last century. He was also a civil rights activist, writing of his experience in Selma: “Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Today, Susannah Heschel teaches Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, with her research centered on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. A political liberal, she has been a frequent contributor to magazines like the Nation, Dissent, Commentary and Tikkun.

King is an author, actress and speaker based in Los Angeles. She is also a director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

The two friends were “set up” by the late Coretta Scott King back in 1972 when she attended a memorial for Rabbi Heschel.

“She told me she had a daughter she wanted me to meet,” recalls Heschel. “Mrs. King was a very warm, maternal, loving figure.”

“There was such camaraderie between us,” noted King of her friend. “In the ’80s and ’90s I remember she was very much involved in the National Council of Christians and Jews.”

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel’s friendship didn’t last more than a few years, but it was deep-rooted. Heschel took a lead role at the 1963 National Conference of Religion and Race in Chicago, which laid the groundwork for the March on Washington later that year. Both worked in the NCCJ.

“It developed into a friendship,” says King. “They shared a bond intellectually and even theologically.”

While much was made of Jewish-African American relations during the civil rights era (many Freedom Riders were Jewish), subsequent tensions — from Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” comment to the 1991 Crown Heights riot — have taken their toll on the alliance.

“The links that existed during the movement are ongoing,” says King, “but there has always been an undertone of conflict and misunderstanding that has led to some anti-Semitism. I’ve been the beneficiary of positive sharing and mutual heart-and-soul connection. There is a kind of spiritual connection we [Jews and Christians] share.”

Adds Heschel, “There’s a natural human desire for heroic figures who inspire us. A lot of Jews were inspired by my father. But what worries me now is, I have the feeling that not all Americans got the right lessons. I’m concerned about what happened since our fathers’ deaths.”

Yolanda King and Susannah Heschel will appear at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 8, at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Tickets: $15.50-$36. Information: (415) 444-8000 or Also 7 p.m. Sunday, April 9, at Congregation Etz Chayim, 4161 Alma St., Palo Alto. Tickets: $15-$18. Information: (650) 813-9094 or Also 7p.m. Monday, April 10, at Mills College Concert Hall, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. Free admission. Information: (510) 430-2255.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.