Monday, January 21, 2013

MLK and what he has to say to the 21st century Jew

MLK survives in living memory, so his holiday hasn't yet become a day of shopping and sales. Give it a few more years.

When I was a kid, before his birthday was nationally recognized, excerpts from that great speech he made at the Lincoln Memorial were played on the news every year on either his birthday or his deathday. Who remembers? But thanks to that tradition,  I knew the speech's refrain - I have a dream - from my earliest days. I didn't know what he had dreamed,  but I knew a black man with a deep baritone had experienced various sensations during sleep, and for some reason the contents of that dream had made him famous.

Later, I learned about segregation, and the bus boycott, and Bull Conner, and, to quote Bono's bloated lyrics,  that "early morning, April 4" when a fatal "Shot [rang] out in the Memphis sky." Later, I learned about Jim Crow and how otherwise decent people could be perfect assholes to one another in the service of a myth or in defense of a tradition. Later I stared to wonder what all of that meant to me, and  I understood that everything MLK said about love and justice and how creating "tension in the mind" makes things better is applicable to almost anything. Some examples:

  • He wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail about segregation, of course, but I can't read it without thinking about Slifkin and Kolko, and all the other examples of cowardice, complicity, intellectual laziness, superstition and "fear of boat rocking" we see every day in our communities. 
  • He writes about "Funtown" and the "ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in [a girl's] little mental sky" when she learns the park is closed to her race, and I think about our little girls and their mental skies when they are told from the very beginning that Executive Secretary, or perhaps Speech Therapist is as far as they are likely to go. 
  • He writes about a "type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth." and I think of our blogs, and the establishment figures who come after them with fire hoses. 
  • He says "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham." and I recall the great Rabbi who recently refused to intervene on behalf of children in Flatbush on the grounds that he was a Boro Park Rav. 
Some of these are tricks of the mind of course - a subjective interpretation - but not all of them. In some cases he accurately describes our ailment and prescribes its cure.

So, for all those reasons and more, raise a glass to Martin Luthor King, Jr., today.

Martin Luther King, Jr: Selected Readings

We are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.... I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. ― Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at the Freedom March on Washington D.C, 28 August 1963

For nonviolence not only calls upon its adherents to avoid external physical violence, but it calls upon them to avoid internal violence of spirit. It calls on them to engage in that something called love. And I know it is difficult sometimes. When I say love at this point, I'm not talking about an affectionate emotion. It's nonsense to urge people, oppressed people, to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. I'm talking about something much deeper. I'm talking about a sort of understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. ― Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at the Freedom Rally in Cobo Hall, 23 June 1963

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. ― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

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