King was his name, and regal he was – full of quiet dignity, power, and wisdom.
I remember Martin Luther King during the siege of Birmingham, Ala. Bull Connor’s rednecks and bloodhounds were baying in the streets. In a modest motel room, a bunch of Conservative rabbis were listening spellbound as he quoted the prophet Amos and the philosopher Martin Buber, expounding on the spiritual and ethical foundations of the civil rights struggle. With true biblical fervor and modern sophistication, he justified the sacrificial courage demanded by freedom rides, sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations. For those of us who were present, his gentle voice and deathless message remain a lifelong inspiration
King was an extraordinary human being. He had his flaws and faults, as all men do, yet he towers above most supposed leaders of the 20th century.
He was, of course, first and foremost a giant of the African American community. “Black is beautiful” was one of his themes. He imbued vast multitudes of his black fellow citizens with a sense of purpose and self-worth. And he pioneered nonviolence as the right method of attaining noble goals.
He was a loyal and proud American, dedicated to the highest ideals of justice and equality embodied in the Constitution of the United States. He demanded that this nation – his nation – live up to those ideals.
He was a passionately committed citizen of the world, too. He preached and practiced peace everywhere on the globe. He opposed bloodshed in distant continents as well as in the United States. And he was a true admirer of Judaism, a source of his own Christian beliefs, and a trustworthy friend of the Jewish people. He profoundly appreciated the moral and material support that American Jewry freely offered to him and to his cause. The image of his walk at Selma, side by side with the venerable Abraham Joshua Heschel, is surely etched in the marble of American history – and in the hearts of millions, black and white, Jewish and gentile.
Martin Luther King spoke out fearlessly against the persecution and oppression of Jews in the now thankfully defunct Soviet Union. He denounced anti-Semitism everywhere, and pointed out that anti-Israel attitudes are but a disguised form of the age-old curse of Jew-hatred. He prayed for Israel’s peace and security in the midst of a free and humane Middle East.
Alas, he died, too young, too early. In a world in which the term “martyr” has been cheapened and debased to apply to fanatical suicide-murderers, one longs to rediscover the classical, original, beautiful meaning of the word: one who lovingly gave his life – and death – for a noble ideal.
The world is vastly impoverished by his absence, yet immensely enriched by his example and teachings. His sense of righteousness and compassion, commitment to his own people and universal human solidarity, are desperately needed by us all today.
This piece is reprinted from the Jan. 13, 2006 Jewish Standard.