When I was five years old, my family moved from southern California to the south side of Chicago.
On the way from Midway airport to our new home near the University of Chicago, we drove first through a working-class white neighborhood of tidy, identical brick homes, which my family came to refer to as “the lamp houses” because each one had an elaborate lamp in the front window. After crossing an expressway, the brick homes and their lamps gave way to abandoned buildings, empty overgrown lots, and streets lined with pawnshops and storefronts where people could cash paychecks or get quick loans. As a young child, I noticed that the people living in that neighborhood had dark skin, but only many years later would I understood the history of discrimination in housing, education, and employment that led to the conditions in urban Black neighborhoods.
The contrast with the neighborhood where my family lived has stayed with me all my life, setting me on a lifelong commitment to justice and equality. I understood from a very young age that I did not deserve to live in a comfortable apartment and receive an excellent education more than the children who lived a few blocks away but were born into different circumstances did.
I also grew up during the height of the civil rights movement. I was too young to join the Freedom Riders or march in Selma, but my family joined the thousands who converged on the Washington Mall in 1968 for the Poor People’s Campaign.
Because of all this, I feel personally connected to last week’s national holiday in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For some, the holiday is a day off from work and school. Others have proclaimed that it should not be a day off, but rather a day on — a day of service. Some use this day to focus on Dr. King’s dream of a world where children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, and to celebrate the progress we have made toward fulfilling that dream.
All these things have value, but I believe this day also must be a time to develop a deeper understanding of Dr. King’s message, beyond “I have a dream.” We need to understand how his vision of equality and justice is still relevant and important today, and we must commit and re-commit to carrying on the fight for racial justice.
In the yearly cycle of Torah readings, we are now in the book of Exodus, with its story of liberation that has inspired and given hope to oppressed people throughout history, including enslaved people in the American South. A crucial, pivotal moment comes early in the book of Exodus, when Moses takes his flocks into the wilderness and encounters a thorn bush that is burning but is not consumed by the flame. A midrash suggests that the bush was always there, always burning, but only Moses stopped to look.
There is an important lesson for all of us in this story. Moses is open enough, present enough, to notice the bush. And when he sees it, he turns aside — he wants to understand why the bush continues to burn. Only after Moses has taken notice and taken the first step does God speak to him, telling him he must free his people from bondage.
In an introduction to Dr. King’s book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” historian Vincent Harding writes: “Just days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the voting rights act, the black community of Watts, in Los Angeles, exploded in fire, frustration, and rage. When King and several of his coworkers rush to Watts to engage some of the young men who were most deeply involved in the uprising, they heard the youth say, ‘We won.’ Looking at the still smoldering embers of the local community, the visitors asked what winning meant, and one of the young men declared, ‘we won because we made them pay attention to us.’”
The civil rights movement was deeply committed to non-violent action, but Dr. King heard the voices of these young men and determined that his organization must pay attention to them and work to end structural discrimination in northern cities. Like Moses, he stopped to pay attention, and then he took action.
In a speech in 1967, Dr. King spoke about the violence taking place in urban Black communities. He said that he still believed that nonviolence was the most potent weapon available, but he added that “riots are the language of the unheard.” Then he asked: “What has American failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promise of freedom and justice has not been met…. It is as necessary to condemn the conditions that cause people to engage in riots as it is to condemn riots.”
We are living in another moment of heightened awareness of racial injustice. If we wish to honor Dr. King’s memory, we must not look away. James Baldwin wrote that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The fire of racial injustice is still burning in our country. The question is: Will we pay attention? Will we stop long enough to notice that the promise of equality and justice still has not been met? And once we have noticed, will we turn aside from the path, as Moses did, and commit ourselves to the task of liberation?
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.