Our two youngest children were Bar and Bat Mitzvah at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard, here in Los Angeles. The synagogue has been an important part of our family's life for years. Imagine then my shock and delight to read in the Temple online newsletter that in 1960, Martin Luther King spoke from the same pulpit. And that a dusty reel of tape was recently discovered, treated to enhance its audio quality, and that it now lives on as Dr. King's gift of wisdom across 53 years. He delivered a kind of State of the Union for civil rights in our sanctuary, a snapshot of progress and of the job still ahead for America. He was just 31 years old. You can hear his speech here. (It takes a while to load -- I think the Temple Isaiah computer server was delivered by Noah in his Ark. Hang in there; it's worth it.)
Dr. King starts talking at 13 minutes and 36 seconds, but the introduction by Rabbi Lewis before that also rises to the occasion. This was 1960, at the height of the grand alliance between progressive Jews and blacks in our country, when the white folks who marched bravely into danger with Dr. King were disproportionately Jewish. Rabbi Lewis compares MLK to Moses, who led his people from the front, into the Red Sea... into waters which did not part until they were in it up to their necks. He points to Dr. King as the one man catalyst, the leader, the inspiration, who persevered to reach the tipping point towards justice in America.
There are several startling revelations for me in Dr. King's speech. He seamlessly and completely places the U.S. civil rights struggle in the context of emancipation, liberation, justice and self-determination for all the colonial peoples in the world. He had recently returned from seeing the British Union Jack lowered in Ghana, and seen the flag of the brand new independent Ghana raised to replace it. And he had just met in India with Jawaharlal Nehru, that country's first prime minister. Dr. King points out that it was an Amendment to the Indian Constitution that made the segregation of Untouchables illegal. Dr. King advocates forcefully for legislative change to deliver meaningful integration of the ballot box in America... But the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) were still years away.
It is startling, with our African-American president now in his second term, to realize in listening to Dr. King's words, just how recently this would have seemed some lunatic dream of an improbable utopia:
Fifty years ago or less than that, a year hardly passed that numerous Negroes were not lynched by some vicious mob. But lynchings have about ceased in the United States. Today there are still some isolated cases, but lynchings have about ceased. Fifty years ago, 25 years ago, most of the southern States prevented Negroes from becoming registered voters, through several means, but one of them the poll tax. And the poll tax has been eliminated now in all but four states. And there is great hope now that it will be eliminated in all of these States.
It was a mere six years since the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the Separate but Equal doctrine it had mandated 58 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson delivered no equality at all... it had instead instituted segregated inequality.
We have broken loose from the Egypt of slavery. We moved through the wilderness of separate but equal. And now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration. And suddenly there is hope that we will be able to enter this new and great land of integration. And so we have come a long, long way since 1896.
But Dr. King was not nearly done. His frustration with the job unfinished nationally and internationally is palpable, and one senses he'd feel the same way today:
It is a fact that we have come a long, long way, but it is not the truth. You see, a fact is merely the absence of contradiction, but truth is the presence of coherence. Truth is the relatedness of facts. Not only have we come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go. If I stopped at this point, I would leave you the victims of a dangerous optimism. If I stopped here, I would leave you the victims of an illusion, wrapped in superficiality.
Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council are on the march, and they are saying that they will never comply with the Supreme Court's decision. We have a long, long way to go in the area of voter registration. For conniving methods are still being used to stop Negroes from voting. There are over five million Negro voters in the south, yet there are only 1,300,000 registered. Not only that, violence is a reality in many instances. Even though there are not as many lynchings, we find that individuals who are merely concerned and determined to have equal rights face physical violence. Court injustices stand supreme in so many southern situations. Both negro and white persons who dare to take a stand for freedom constantly face violence and abuse, persecution and arrest and bombings. Not only are individual homes bombed, but churches and synagogues and schools are being bombed.
There are many remarkable parallels for 2013 amid Dr. King's insights into the history of slavery in America.
We have the capacity of justifying the rightness of the wrong, and this is exactly what happened during the days of slavery. Many of the slave owners fell victim to the danger of... a too literalistic interpretation of the Bible. There is a danger that religion and the Bible, not properly interpreted, will be used as instruments to crystallize the status quo; and this happened.
And we should ponder how things have changed, in the relative diligence of our three branches of government in driving progress in our United States today:
The leadership we should have from the Federal government has come mainly from the judicial branch. The legislative and executive branches of the government have been all too apathetic and sometimes hypocritical in this area. And if the problem is to be solved, all branches of the government must work with bold and grim determination to implement the law of the land.
Long before technology shrank the world, long before we were all connected by the Internet and our globalized economy, in our temple Dr. King spoke of an inescapable but fragile future where no one would last long as an island:
If we do not learn to live together as brothers in the world, we will all perish together as fools. For we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And whatever affects one nation or one individual directly affects all nations or individuals indirectly.
Listening to the 1960 tape, it was clear to me that we are often blind to the sweeping arc of history, and our place in it. We focus on this year, next year, and maybe the one after that. We forget Edmund Burke's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Gratitude to Rabbi Gan for looking in a dusty box and giving new life to an old tape full of present wisdom:
This is the challenge of the hour. This problem will not be solved in America and will not be solved in the world until people of goodwill rise up, and people of great determination will take a stand, realizing that wherever there is hate, wherever there is a lack of brotherhood, wherever there is a lack of real community, chaos will ultimately set in. And so someone must come to the pulpit dissatisfied...
Let us be maladjusted. It may be that through such maladjustment we may be able to move out from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of justice. And this will be the day when men everywhere will be able to join hands and sing a new song, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to come together and sing anew " Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"