Sign In Forgot Password

Recovering the Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King

04/06/2015 08:22:00 AM


Recovering the Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King
Rosh Hashana 2003 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

On August 28, 1963, forty years and one month ago, a young preacher named Martin Luther King, ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, looked out on the crowd of a quarter million, and began a talk that changed the world:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

This summer, I sat with my children and listened to the speech again. The speech was presented in an excellent program produced by ABC News, together with interviews of those present and those who organized the 1963 March on Washington.

I sat with tear in my eyes. The speech always brings tears.

Tears of inspiration and transcendent hope.

Tears of pride in an America devoted to equality and justice.

Tears of gratitude that I had been alive, though very young, to witnessed King's struggle and his triumph.

And then looking at my own children, tears of the bereft. For the America they have grown into has never known a leader like Martin Luther King. And I wonder if it ever will.

His leadership was unique. He held no political office, commanded no great industrial corporation or labor union, chaired no official organization outside of the loose association of pastors and activists known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His leadership was rooted solely in the clarity of his moral vision. In the words of the preacher Philips Brooks, he "proclaimed truth through the power of personality." But he moved us, he changed us, he led us to a higher place, a higher vision.

If you visit a bookstore today, you'll find hundreds of volumes on the topic of leadership: the education of leaders, the habits of leaders, biographies of leaders, and many theories of leadership. Leadership has become an academic discipline, the subject of study and research. Universities offer courses and programs on the psychology, sociology, the history, even the biology of leadership.

Ironically, with all this attention on leadership, it seems to be a very rare phenomenon today. Which leader moves us, elevates our vision, fills us with the desire to serve? Whose character would we hold before our children as an model of compassion, commitment and courage? Where can we look to find leadership in this culture?

Certainly not in politics. Even beyond the lunacy of this recall election, politics in contemporary America is not a place of leadership. It has become a ferocious partisan bloodsport ­ a game of mutual character assassination through attack ads, dirty tricks, innuendo, insinuation and tawdry revelation. Politics is about money, and money is about interests: Indian tribes, labor unions, trial lawyers, oil companies. Politicians speak to us in the language of pabulum ­ baby food -- promising everyone everything they want at no cost to anyone. So that, in the end, nothing any politician says to us is believed. Political discourse is assumed from the beginning to be dishonest, corrupt, and manipulative.

This corruption of leaders goes well beyond politics. Just read your morning paper: The mind-boggling greed of business leaders; child molesters sheltered by the Church; the cult of media celebrities who have all the morals of Sodom and Gemorah.

Even in sports, even in our games, which are designed to generate heroes ­ heroes who win our admiration with "miles and miles and miles of heart," there are so few true leaders. Sport today is no longer the "never-ending human drama", "the thrill of victory and agony of defeat." The morning sports page is indistinguishable from the business page ­ who is holding out for how much, whose deal with the team, whose shoe contract is richer, fatter, more ridiculous. And if not the business page, then the crime report ­ who's been arrested, who's being arraigned, whose lawyer thinks they'll be out in time for the pre-season.

Our children are growing up an America where no one speaks with authority, no one can be trusted, no one inspires, no one leads. It's no wonder that the young today live lives so self-absorbed, with so little hope, so little vision, bereft of a sense of transcendent mission. Sitting with my children, now some 35 years after his death, I mourn anew for Dr King.

Great leaders, writes Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, tell great stories. A leader tells us a story about ourselves, about who we are, where we are in the universe, what's expected of us, what's worth fighting for, living for, dying for. A leader roots our personal narratives into this bigger and grander narrative so that our personal struggles take on cosmic meanings, far greater than the boundaries of our own personal lives. The leader inspires moral courage by offering us a place of significance in the universe --affirming that we matter in the grandest scheme of things.

Great leaders invite us to join an heroic journey. A journey that's not easy. A journey replete with obstacles, opposition, barriers and pitfalls to be overcome. Great leaders, unlike politicians, don't promise us what we want. They don't promise to fulfill our smallest needs. On the contrary, great leaders demands sacrifice, sometimes great sacrifice. But we don't feel as if we're losing anything. In exchange for all we devote and dedicate and surrender in the name of this journey, we gain a sense of the heroic. Our sacrifices are ennobling, elevating us. And in the end, the leader makes us believe that, some way or another, we will reach the Promised Land.

Dr King invited us all to share black America's battle for freedom and equality. It became our sacred journey from slavery to freedom, our heroic struggle against injustice. In his mighty vision, all are included on the journey ­ black people and white people, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics. What fills our eyes with tears is his vision of the America that all of us aspire to: An America glorious in its commitment to justice, noble in the depth of its compassion, exalted in its devotion to human dignity. We will enter the frey, engage the adversary, but without violence, without rage, without hostility -- meeting hatred with love, and persecution with compassion. Dr King persuaded us to believe, that against all odds and contrary to all prognostication, despite all the hatred and racism, that we shall overcome one day. One day, we will reach that Promised Land.

August 28, 1963:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Dr King was a minister of the Gospel, and his story is deeply influenced by Christianity and by the Christian story. He was, as well, a student and proponent of Ghandi's philosophy of non-violent resistance to injustice. But it was the Hebrew Prophets who shaped King's vision. To listen to King is to hear an echo of the ancient prophets.

The prophets of the Bible were a unique class of strange and passionate men who declared war on idolatry.

Idolatry isn't the worship of rocks and trees and statues. Idolatry is the belief that there are centers and sources of power in the world, but powers diffuse, dispersed through the phenomenal world, and locked in unending conflict with one another. Light and darkness, rain and sun, earth and sky, ocean and land, life and death, are forever at odds with one another. Idolatry imagines the human being as but a helpless bystander in this on-going war of all against all. To survive, the human being must skillfully play a game of divine politics -- propitiating this god, allying with that one, changing sides at the right moment, soliciting, manipulating, scheming to gain a moment's favor.

Idolatry is a theology of fear. Idolatry presents a world out of control, where justice means nothing and power means everything. Idolatry depicts a world of chaos where dreams are futile, and aspirations are absurd because anything we dream, anything we plan, anything we create, will attract the jealous ire of some god or his rival.

Idolatry is ultimately a philosophy of passivity, of resignation and surrender.

Idolatry is the theology of moral cynicism. Injustice, cruelty, brutality are part of the structure of reality. They cannot be challenged. They cannot be changed. And therefore, one is wise to seek whatever power one can amass simply to protect one's own. Privatism ­ protecting the interests of me and mine alone, is the ethic of idolatry.

The prophets knew all about life's chaos ­ the viciousness and violence that fills the world. But they refused to accept this turmoil as the last word, as the ultimate condition of things. Breshit bara elohim et ha-shamayim v'et ha-aretz. In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. This is the most radical statement of prophetic religion. Beneath the chaos, is order and unity. Behind the darkness, is light and wisdom. Latent within the brokenness of the world is the pattern of its wholeness and the possibility ­ the ever-present responsibility -- of its repair. The world is not inevitably and eternally a battleground of opposing forces: va'yar eloheem kee tov, and God saw that it was good.

We are not helpless. We are not trivial. Human beings created in the image of God have the power and the responsibility to remake the world ­ make it whole and healed ­ in the image of God. The meaning of human existence, the glory of human life, lies in that struggle to make the world whole. We can be more than petty, more than self-interested, more than human.

Accepting the 1964 Nobel peace prize, Dr King declared: "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."

The prophet speaks in the name of God. The prophet speaks the word of God. But the prophet isn't merely a mouthpiece for God, a microphone for God's voice. The key to prophecy is not the prophet's mouth but his eyes and his ears.

We share the same world with the prophet. We walk the same avenues, shop in the same markets, drive the same freeways, read the same morning paper. Our eyes and ears have grown accustomed to a certain level of dissonance and ugliness. Like the constant roar of the nearby freeway, always present but never heard, like the polluted air we get used to breathing, we adjust and endure and soon we ignore the anguished cry of the mother whose child is murdered in the drive-by, the frustrated sigh of the emergency room nurse who hasn't a bed for the next broken body, the whimper of the child born addicted to crack cocaine, the swallowed indignity of the immigrant crowded into a ghetto tenement. It fills the air, it's all around, but we don't hear it and we don't see it.

The prophet hears and the prophet sees. It haunts his every moment. He can't sleep. He can't eat. He can't move through life without that pain accompanying him. That's God's revelation. That's the curse of being a prophet.

It's not only enormous tragedies of history that alarms the prophet. Holocausts, genocides shock us all. It's the small, everyday, unnoticed daily cruelties that unnerve him. Amidst every society lives a certain quantity of latent evil it has learned to tolerate. But the prophet sees the world through God's eyes. The prophet has no tolerance for this evil, and no patience for its gradual amelioration. He's shocked. He's outraged. He's relentless in his condemnation. What is simply normal to the rest of us, is unbearably repulsive to the prophet. What's a normal part of the social structure, a normal feature of economic development, a normal bi-product of social progress, is an offense to the prophet's sensibility. For he feels in his guts the pain of every evil, every cruelty, every abuse. And he feels the bitterness of moral callousness, of neglect and abandonment. The prophet speaks but no one listens.


There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

God created a world whole and unified. But human beings like to think in binary categories and to divide the world: Us/Them; Our people/Those people; Citizens/Aliens; the civilized/the barbarians; children of light/children of darkness; the saved/the damned; Jews/goyim. It's a convenient way to draw a map of the world and find your place. And it's a convenient answer to the world's evil. All you have to do is assign the suffering, the broken, the needy to the other side of humanity. They become "the Other." They're not my people, therefore they're not my responsibility. It's not my problem. Let one of their own worry about them.

This is what the prophets call sin. God unites all into wholeness. Sin is the expression of the human desire to separate what God unites, to draw false binary distinctions within God's wholeness. Some are guilty, all are responsible.

The prophet condemns sin. But no particular sin. No single offense or transgression receives his castigation. For the prophet, it's our entire orientation that's the problem. It's the way we think of the world and ourselves in the world, that's the source of evil. Some are guilty, all are responsible.

The prophet proclaims that God has purposes in human history. And God works through us. God recreates the world through us. We are the agents of God's project. We carry God's plan, God's dreams into the world. The transformation of history demands a transformation of us. The transformation of society, its redirection, requires the transformation of our orientation and attitude. The world will not change until we change. That's the God's demand. That is Dr King's moral vision.

The Lincoln Memorial, 1963:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream.

Dr King was only 34 years old when this speech was delivered. He was only 39 when he was murdered in Memphis. Had he lived, he would have been 75 years old this January.

One wonders, had he lived, if he'd still have the dream.

During the last five years of his life, King's attention turned from the barriers of legal racism and social discrimination to the problem of poverty in America. It was a much more complex problem. His challenge was not so clearly defined as desegregating city busses, opening lunch counters and unblocking voting booths. His adversary not so easily personified as Sheriff Bull Conners and his dogs. No longer could Northerners smugly castigate a backward, uncivilized South. The problem of poverty indicts all America. King encountered new opposition and new frustration. Had he lived to see these past forty years, to continue this effort, would he still have the dream?

Between then and now were the assassinations of the Kennedys, Vietnam, Watergate, the inward turned Me-Generation, genocide in Cambodia, Biafra, Ethiopia, Ruwanda, and the Sudan, and now 9/11 and the rise of world terror. Poverty is still a plague upon America, especially black America. But we have also witnessed the fall of communism and the end of the cold war, the end of aparthid in South Africa. Jesse Jackson Jr serves today as a congressman from Chicago. King's colleague John Lewis represents Atlanta. The Secretary of State and National Security Advisor are both African American. Would the dream have survived?

The dream was not rooted in empirical facts. Had it depended upon facts alone, it would have been stillborn. In would have died in the Birmingham jail where King sat, condemned not only by the white power structure, but by his colleagues in the black clergy. It would have died with the little girls blown to bits in the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church. It would have died with every beating, every attack dog, every fire hose sent against those who marched for civil rights and human decency in the South. King's dream wasn't in the facts of history, but in his deep faith: His faith in the power of non-violent protest; his faith that America would someday live up to its principles; his faith in a God who has purposes in human history.

In his Nobel address he declared: "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. 'And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.'"

King learned this faith from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, from our ancestors. But sadly, you'd be hard pressed to find such a faith articulated in synagogues this yom tov. (Not the faith in a supernatural Mashiah who will descend from heaven and magically solve all our problems. But the prophetic faith in the ultimate destiny of human beings to remake their world in God's image.) King learned this from us. But ironically, Jews don't talk like this.

Why not? Is it that we are still so scarred from the horror and trauma of the Holocaust; so depressed by the endless pain and struggle of our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel; so defeated by the unsolvable social dilemmas of America, that we have put aside this prophetic heritage of hope and vision out of frustration? Or is it that we have grown so comfortable, so secure, so affluent, so attached to our possessions and our privileges, that we no long feel called by the prophet's plea to heal the world in God's image?

How did these idols of cynicism and privatism find their way into our homes and our hearts? Listening to Dr King's speech is a painful reminder of a precious heritage misplaced, a sacred legacy forgotten. But without this faith, what are we? Without the heroic journey, what chance have we to reclaim the hearts of our children? Without this hope, why bother? And if not now, when?

We share these stirring words this holiday. In 1963, they were offered by a prophet as a declaration of true faith. Tonight, we share them as our prayer:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!

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.

We dream that one day our children will again find the faith of the prophets to liberate themselves from the cynicism that enslaves their moral imagination, from the idolatry of privatism and self-absorbtion that shackles their compassion, from all that binds and limits their moral courage, and bond them together in a holy community so that they may sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,

Free at last, free at last. 
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780