Thursday, January 16, 2014

Stranger in a Familiar Land: The Legacy of MLK

As our nation celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., much will be written and said about his vision, his importance to the civil rights movement, and his most well-known oration, the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered during the March on Washington.  Certainly that is a pivotal text, ranked among the world's most influential speeches.  But we should not ignore Dr. King's other writings and homilies, particularly what would prove to be his final speech, the one delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968.

The full speech is lengthy, but worth listening to

Many have called Dr. King the Moses of the African-American people, as he helped shepherd them from being second-class citizens with limited freedoms into an age of improved civil rights.  This week's Torah portion, Yitro, gives us insight into the development of Moses' identity.  He names his eldest son Gershom, derived from the Hebrew for, "I have been a stranger in a foreign land."  In a similar vein, Dr, King understood that African Americans in the 1960s were experiencing a corollary struggle.  They were not strangers in a strange land; their plight was more serious.  They were forced to live as strangers in their own land.

We should remember what brought King to Memphis in the spring of 1968: a strike by 1,300 African-American sanitation workers that had been going on since February.  The strike was initially precipitated by the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker; following city policy, they had sought shelter from the rain n the back of their trucks and had been crushed to death.  The lack of safe working conditions, coupled with poor treatment and unfair wages, led the garbage men to walk off the job.  Within a week of the strike's start, more than 10,000 tons of trash had piled up on the streets of Memphis.  Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate (we should acknowledge, though it may be painful, that Loeb and others who opposed the strike had Jewish roots, though Loeb later converted to Episcopalianism).

King and other organizers appealed to community leaders to have reason, to understand that African-American's are also God's children and have a right to live with dignity.  He argued that no American, regardless of the color of his or her skin, should have to feel like a stranger, an outcast, in his or her own country.

And then King again compared himself to Moses, predicting that he would make it to the mountaintop but not have an opportunity to enter the promised land.  The next day, his premonition would sadly come true.

But have any of us actually entered the promised land?  Or do we still gaze out upon the landscape of unrealized possibilities?  Too many people remain strangers in their own land, told that they are second-class citizens- because of their race, their gender, their sexuality, their socio-economic status, their country of origin.  More than 45 years after Dr. King's death, have we really continued to carry forth his legacy?  Have we continued to fight for the disenfranchised?

The words of Gates of Prayer, a Reform Jewish prayerbook, could easily be the words of Moses, or the Hebrew prophets, or Dr. King:

God our Creator, teach us to love freedom as we love life.  Make us understand that only when all are free can we be free.  Let none be masters and none be slaves.  Then shall we sing as our people did when they were freed from Pharaoh's grip.
Only when all are free can we be free.  May the day come soon when all enjoy the sweetness of freedom.

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