Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, Vice President for Special Projects at HUC-JIR and Rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, NJ, delivered the following address on Monday, January 18, 2010, as part of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Observance in Westfield, NJ.
I grew up in the south in the 1940s and early 50s. I attended segregated schools and used restrooms with signs that read: “White Men Only”. I rode Atlanta’s buses and trolleys and remember vividly the instructions posted at the entrance of those vehicles: “Whites sit from front to rear; colored from rear to front.” One hot August day, this 12-year old boy, with a full head of short, kinky hair (if you can believe that!) and sporting a dark tan from the blazing sun of Atlanta’s torrid summer, boarded one of those buses and took a seat in the third row. The man next to me, in a hostile, yet strangely matter-of-fact manner, instructed me to move to the back of the bus. Confused and frightened, I moved half way back, hoping that I could survive that journey by traveling in some land in-between black and white.
Seven years later, in 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States – in one of the pivotal moments of American history -- declared in Brown v. Board of Education that there was no “in-between”, no “separate, but equal”, that there is to be only one public school system for every shade of skin.
That same year, young Martin Luther King, then 25, became minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. A year later, he earned his PhD at Boston University AND led the black boycott of Montgomery’s segregated city bus lines. It was clear there would be no insulated ivory tower for young Martin. Those times cried out for action.
Moving quickly, King organized the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which gave him a base to pursue further civil-rights activities. He became the undisputed civil rights leader, first in the South and soon nationwide. His philosophy of nonviolent resistance led to his being arrested numerous times in the 1950s and 60s. The protest he led in Birmingham in 1963 catapulted him onto the world’s stage. In August of that year, he summoned Americans to gather before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and gather, we did, more than 200,000, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, black, white, and brown, young and old. I vividly recall watching from our bus window – as we traveled the turnpike and crawled along the access roads leading to Washington -- as the buses rolled in, not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of buses, along with countless trains and planes. From California to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters, they rolled in.
The March on Washington was pivotal in achieving the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same year King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Then the scene shifted to Selma, Alabama where King and the SCLC led a campaign for African-American voter registration. He was not always successful. He had to deal with many disappointments. A nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery was attacked by police who beat and tear gassed the protestors, but – on the third try – they succeeded, but only when the National Guard and federal troops were mobilized. Those events in Selma provoked national outrage, culminating in the passage of the1965 Voting Rights Act.
King’s leadership in the civil rights movement was challenged by those who cautioned him to move more slowly and by those who insisted…that he move more quickly. But he persisted and his focus widened beyond civil rights to powerful opposition to the Vietnam War and a deeper concern over poverty which he recognized as a social disease eating away at the fabric of America. He interrupted his plans for a Poor People’s March to Washington in 1968 for a trip to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers. It was on that trip that he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Dr. King’s extraordinary life and tragic death have taught me four lessons which I will share with you today.
First: He has taught me the power of faith.
When you strip away King’s political genius and his organizational acumen, when you cut through his oratorical brilliance and personal charisma, what you are left with is simply this: he was -- a man of faith. When he was disappointed by the failure of the federal government to act and rejected by the black clergy establishment of Birmingham, when his life was threatened on a daily basis and the FBI sought to entrap him, it was the power of his Christian faith that sustained him.
The central pillar of that faith was the Biblical teaching that we are all created in the image of God. That meant that we must all be treated with the same dignity and accorded the same basic human rights.
King’s “Dream” was the radical vision of a more compassionate world which he discovered in the words of the prophets, Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. He quoted those prophets in almost every speech he delivered. For King – like the rabbis of the first century, including Jesus -- scripture was not an arcane message from the past, but a summons to action in the present. Every time they confronted the sacred text it meant something different. Instead of concentrating on the original intentions of the biblical authors, they looked for something new that would speak directly to the current needs of their community. They felt no qualms about re-telling the sacred to improve the world. Jesus, one of the great Jewish teachers of his time, did precisely that, and so did Dr. King, from the pulpits and meeting halls of America.
The second lesson I have learned from King is…how much we can – and must -- learn from others.
Dr. King taught us that we must come to terms with people who are different from ourselves. Their presence in our lives often challenge us -- at a profound level – to re-examine our assumptions, to think in new ways, to explore what may turn out to be better ways to relate. As a species, we are bound tightly to one another -- electronically, financially and politically. Unless we create together a just and equitable global society, unless we treat all peace-loving people with respect and consideration, we are unlikely to have a viable world to pass on to the next generation.
In this sanctuary today are women and men of faith, non-believers, and agnostics; Christians, Jews, and Muslims; every skin color under the sun; sixth generation Americans and newly arrived; conservative, liberal, and middle of the road. What binds us all together is a recognition that the job we are doing is not good enough: that our political process is profoundly flawed by the power of those determined to defend the status quo; that the gap between rich and poor in this land has grown so wide that we are almost like two nations: those born into hope and those who face a bleak future from the get-go. What binds us together is that we are unwilling to accept a situation where only 50% of the students in low-income communities finish high school. King believed – and these are his words -- “Life’s most urgent and persistent question is: what are you doing for others?”
This brings me to the third lesson I learned from King: Faith that does not lead to timely action….is hollow and without enduring value.
As a rabbi, I encountered that lesson again and again. When a congregant was critically ill at Overlook hospital, to delay my visit by even one day, might be too late. To wait until tomorrow to make a call to a depressed human soul might mean that we can no longer help to save a life.
Dr. King recognized that the same was true of our nation. The Vietnam War was consuming the life-blood of our country. Poverty was sucking hope from the souls of our youth. Illiteracy and malnutrion were eating away at the core of our nation. Our cities – Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles -- were aflame. King understood that the time was now -- not next week, not next year -- but now.
One of my professors of Bible taught me: “hope delayed is hope denied.” That’s true of the baby born today into deep poverty. That’s true of the nine-year-old who will sit in a classroom tomorrow, but learns nothing because he is hungry or because his teacher long ago gave up. That’s true of the woman who works two jobs, but keeps falling deeper and deeper into debt. That’s true of the veteran who returns from Iraq with the scars of war and no one to lend him a hand. That’s true of our Caribbean neighbors in Haiti whose lives have been destroyed.
On that hot August day in 1963, one of those who stood with Dr. King at the podium on the Lincoln Memorial was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress and rabbi in Livingston. He declared: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing I learned…is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is…silence.”
That is the fourth lesson I have learned: silence is our greatest enemy.
Over the past 44 years, I have encountered ugly moments in our bucolic, tree-lined community: boycotts, threats, capitulation to narrow self-interest, even a nasty telephone call from a state political party leader who told me: “you should go back to where you came from”. But the most disappointing moments were those when I sat with fellow clergy or with public officials and appealed to them to stand up for principle and for human dignity and I was met with.…silence. And if that were the end of the story, I am not at all certain that I would have spent nearly my entire rabbinic career in Westfield.
But I experienced something else – something bright and hopeful about our town, our county, and our nation. I encountered women and men, Christians, Jews, and Muslims – many were members of the churches and synagogues of Union County – fellow citizens who linked arms to walk the walk with us, to march the march with us, who build low income housing, who rehabilitate run-down dwellings, who lend their strength to the Westfield Community Center, the Westfield Neighborhood Council, and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association. They tutor 10-year olds and offer the hope of a college education to an entire class of first-graders in Plainfield. (We just happen to call that program that exists today: I Have a Dream.”) I have been inspired by educators, judges, and clergy, counselors, emergency service personnel, and business people, attorneys, accountants, and health care professionals – people of every walk of life -- whose compassion lifts up the fallen and whose selfless actions serve the cause of justice. Every day they refuse to be silent. They help me believe in the words of Dr. King: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The night before Dr. King was assassinated, he ascended the pulpit of Mason Temple in Memphis and spoke these words:
“I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, ‘We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that…nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night.’
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
We still have not reached the Promised Land. But Dr. King has shown us the way.
Martin Luther King took us with him to the mountaintop. He took us with him to the Montgomery church and to the Oval Office. He took us to the streets of Selma and to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. And then he was gone. But not really gone. We still hear his voice.
We heard his voice last month when President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo: “Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is…a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school – because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child’s dreams.”
That is Dr. King’s radical vision for a more compassionate world. That is Dr. King’s dream which is now our challenge and our hope.