As Good As Any­body: Mar­tin Luther King Jr. and Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel’s Amaz­ing March Toward Freedom

  • Review
By – November 2, 2011

The life sto­ries of Mar­tin Luther King Jr. and Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel are art­ful­ly woven togeth­er here to make their meet­ing seem inevitable. Par­al­lels are drawn, such as the frus­tra­tion of grow­ing up among insti­tu­tion­al­ized prej­u­dice, and the strong val­ues instilled by fam­i­ly. The com­plex polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions these men faced are poet­i­cal­ly dis­tilled to their essen­tial ele­ments of big­otry and injus­tice, so that the sto­ry is under­stand­able even to read­ers with­out much back­ground knowl­edge. The first half of the book describes Martin’s youth­ful anger at the sta­tus quo and his grow­ing deter­mi­na­tion to change the sys­tem. The sec­ond half details Abraham’s strug­gle to escape Euro­pean anti-Semi­tism and his recog­ni­tion of Martin’s plight as sim­i­lar to his own. The book ends with the 1965 Sel­ma march where the two men walked arm in arm, and Abra­ham famous­ly said that he felt like his legs were pray­ing. Paul Colon’s sig­na­ture col­ored-pen­cil-and­wa­ter­col­or art­work is a per­fect com­pli­ment to the text. He respect­ful­ly ren­ders the well known faces of the cen­tral char­ac­ters, but infus­es them with an ener­gy that shows them as active par­tic­i­pants in the sto­ry rather than as staid his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. Sub­tle over­tones of warm Amer­i­can brown and cool Euro­pean blue dis­tin­guish the sep­a­rate sto­ries, and com­bine in a full-col­or palette when Mar­tin and Abra­ham final­ly meet. This pic­ture book makes acces­si­ble a fas­ci­nat­ing slice of Amer­i­can his­to­ry, and will appeal to Jew­ish read­ers, African Amer­i­can read­ers, and any­one with an inter­est in issues of social jus­tice. Grades 2 – 5.


By Bar­bara Bietz 

Bar­bara Bietz: I am thrilled and hon­ored to wel­come award win­ning author, Richard Michel­son, to my col­umn. His book, As Good As Any­body: Mar­tin Luther King and Abra­ham Joshua Heschel’s Amaz­ing March Toward Free­dom (illus­trat­ed by Raul Colón) was award­ed the Syd­ney Tay­lor Award Gold Medal. This elo­quent book explores an impor­tant time in Amer­i­can his­to­ry and the good­ness of the peo­ple who came togeth­er for free­dom. The beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten text of such a poignant, his­toric sto­ry is age­less and time­less. As Good As Any­body has the poten­tial to edu­cate, inspire, and bring com­mu­ni­ties togeth­er for the com­mon good. It is an out­stand­ing exam­ple of the pow­er of books. What was your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing As Good As Any­body?

Rich Michel­son: Inspi­ra­tion, when it vis­its me, always seems to fol­low a very slow, pedes­tri­an course. Well before I was writ­ing children’s books I was explor­ing my child­hood con­fu­sion con­cern­ing vio­lence and racial issues, both in my poet­ry (Bat­tles and Lul­la­bies, U. of Illi­nois Press) and essays (a recent essay called Jews and Blacks can be read on the home­page of my site (www​.Richard​Michel​son​.com). When I was born, my area of East New York, Brook­lyn, was 90-per­cent Jew­ish. Twelve years lat­er, less than 10 per­cent of those liv­ing in the neigh­bor­hood were Jews. There was anger, bit­ter­ness — and friend­ship — on all sides. Much of my work is an attempt to both heal society’s racial wounds, and those with­in myself. 

When I began to write children’s books I decid­ed to fic­tion­al­ize my old neigh­bor­hood at the 50/50 point. Across the Alley, (a 2006 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist and PJ Library selec­tion) is about two boys, one Jew­ish and one black, who are not allowed to play togeth­er, but whose bed­room win­dows face each other’s. At night, when nobody is watch­ing, they become secret best friends. It was while writ­ing this sto­ry, that I remem­bered the friend­ship of King and Hes­chel, and I decid­ed to exam­ine anoth­er facet of a sit­u­a­tion where social con­ven­tion tries to keep peo­ple apart, but indi­vid­u­als attempt to over­come their differences. 

BB: Are there some inter­est­ing facts about the rela­tion­ship between Rev­erend King and Rab­bi Hes­chel that you did not include in the book?
RM: Rev­erend King was killed on April 4th, 1968, just 9 days before Passover was to begin. King’s empha­sis on the Jew­ish Exo­dus in his ser­mons formed the basis of a strong bond between both men and King and his fam­i­ly had planned to join the Heschel’s at their Seder. What a won­der­ful hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tion that might have been. I am sure it would have forged fur­ther alliances between the two men. 

BB: How much research was involved in the project?
RM: Research is my favorite part of any project, though some­times I sus­pect it becomes an avoid­ance mech­a­nism. I had to tear myself away from read­ing books by and about King and Hes­chel, and force myself to begin writ­ing. Com­ing into the project I knew more about King, so I pri­mar­i­ly reread some of his speech­es, to put his cadences back into my head. Like many sec­u­lar raised Jews of my gen­er­a­tion, what lit­tle I knew of Hes­chel, was cen­tered on his anti-Viet­nam stance, and that famous pho­to of him march­ing with King, which Raul Colon bril­liant­ly inter­pret­ed for the book cov­er. I end­ed up read­ing Edward Kaplan’s biog­ra­phy of Hes­chel (and I was very pleased, months after pub­li­ca­tion, to run into Mr. Kaplan at a lec­ture by Susan­nah Hes­chel, Rab­bi Heschel’s daugh­ter and an accom­plished schol­ar in her own right. The three of us had much to talk about and have kept in touch). I also read Or Rose’s YA bio, and Heschel’s essays Moral Grandeur and Spir­i­tu­al Audac­i­ty, which I hearti­ly rec­om­mend. It is an inspir­ing, some­times dif­fi­cult, always thought pro­vok­ing book. And pure­ly for my own enjoy­ment, I read Heschel’s poet­ry. Of course, I bad­ly want­ed to show off all my new smarts,” so the most dif­fi­cult part of the project was cut­ting out all that was extra­ne­ous to the core story. 

BB: What is your favorite hol­i­day?
RM: Hmmm. I am real­ly not much of a hol­i­day per­son, to my wife and children’s con­stant cha­grin. One of my year­ly pledges to myself is to slow down a bit and learn to enjoy a more leisure­ly hol­i­day pace (spo­ken, I real­ize, as one who does not have to do the hol­i­day cook­ing). Still, if I had to pick, I admit that, though I hate the long dri­ve to and fro, I do look for­ward to Passover every year. I get to catch up with the cousins and I can’t resist my love­ly wife’s pota­to-car­rot kugel. 

Bar­bara Bietz is a free­lance writer and children’s book review­er. She is cur­rent­ly a mem­ber of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Com­mit­tee. Bar­bara is the author of the mid­dle grade book, Like a Mac­cabee. She has a blog ded­i­cat­ed to Jew­ish books for chil­dren at www​.Bar​baraB​Book​Blog​.Blogspot​.com.

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