Why Martin Luther King was the greatest American of the 20th century

Why Martin Luther King was the greatest American of the 20th century

I was moved to tears by the movie “Selma.”

It captured the greatest American of the twentieth century at the height of his powers, using oratory and an army of religious leaders who answered his call to change America. As a communal activist, the idea that Martin Luther King’s entire career spanned just 14 years – from when he was 25 to his assassination before his 40th birthday – beggars the imagination.

Martin Luther King Day was this week. To Americans it should signify a rebirth of the principles enumerated on the Fourth of July. The latter commemorates the formation of our country upon the values of freedom, equality, and the infinite worth of the human person. When we remember Martin Luther King, however, we commemorate the man who brought America to conform to those founding principles, which were being violated. Just think of an America so great that it could cross the Atlantic to fight and defeat Hitler while at the same time denying a black child in the South the right to drink water from a fountain on a scorching summer day.

But to Jews, Martin Luther King’s memory is also of unique importance.

As protests waged through Ferguson and New York City these past few months, anti-Israel activists pounced on the opportunity to hijack the tragedies to their own ends. Mixed in with the “Black Lives Matter” billboards were a handful of other signs reading “Palestinian Lives Matter.” What the Israel haters are trying to do is to drive a wedge between the Jewish and black communities.

They will fail.

The relationship between blacks and Jews is one of authenticity and depth, striking to the core of both peoples. It was not built on a shared oppression but on a shared faith. Not upon a common history but upon a common destiny. Not on shared interests but on shared values. Not upon a mutual alienation from the mainstream but upon a mutual commitment to social justice.

Faith always has been the central pillar of the black community. Far from being a simple political response to injustice and oppression, the civil rights movement was a religious movement –conceived in churches, led by ministers, and marched to the sounds of old “Negro spirituals.”

Faith fueled the soldiers of the civil rights movement and sacrifice sustained them. And it was this burning faith that serves as the true secret to their success. The world has seen so many liberation movements succumb to the battling egos of their leaders or simply replace the original oppressor with a newer one: Czar Nicholas with Lenin and Stalin, Batista with Fidel Castro, or a white-ruled Rhodesia for a Mugabe-controlled Zimbabwe.

The leaders of the civil rights movement, being men and women of deep belief and spiritual conviction, exhibited the most incredible humility. They always put the interest of the people before any personal lust for power. Walter Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth easily could have resented Martin Luther King Jr. for his higher profile, and King could have wanted more for himself than to die on the lonely balcony of a second-rate Memphis motel. But their objective was not personal advancement but rather to lead God’s children toward a promised land of equal rights and human dignity. They put the people before their egos and placed reconciliation with the white man ahead of fratricidal civil war.

The same chains of slavery that bound the Jews in ancient Egypt and the blacks in the New World may have imprisoned their bodies – but it liberated their spirit. Those chains taught Jews and blacks, above all else, to see in God the source of their salvation rather than in any professed human liberator, be he as righteous as Moses or as determined as Lincoln. Both became nations to whom faith was endemic and sustaining.

For most people, religion is a guide to gaining entry into the afterlife, a way of avoiding hell. For African-Americans and Jews, however, religion was a guide to finding hope and comfort in this life, so that their earthly existence might transcend the hell it often was. Other religions reinforced the oppression of the faithful by instructing them in the divine right of kings. But Jews and blacks always held fast to the faith that no man was born subject to another. To them, all men were princes.

Other religions taught men to accept their suffering in this world in exchange for the comforts of paradise, which would more than compensate. But the faith of Jews and African-Americans inspired them to challenge existing prejudices, because man is not born to suffer. Man dare not await the paradise of Eden. His highest obligation is to create heaven on earth.

As a Jew, my attachment to King’s speeches has less to do with the injustice of segregation – to which I thankfully was never subject and from which he cured America – and everything to do with a modern preacher who brought the ancient Hebrew prophets to life. While studying at yeshiva I related to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah as characters in a book. But after listening to King’s magical orations, many of which I have tried to memorize, I related to them as living figures – as emboldened and animated opponents of injustice. Like Moses, King never reached the promised land. But like Moses, he found redemption in a life of service over adventure, winning righteousness over recognition.

That the Jewish and black communities are distinguished by their attachment to their faith is further evidenced by the unique problems faced by each upon the abandonment of that faith. The Jewish break with ritualistic tradition at times has led to materialism. Assimilation has led to questioning of identity, a futile attempt to erase distinctive Jewish characteristics, and a misguided effort to blend and disappear into the mainstream. For many in the African-American community, a loss of the anchor of faith has led to a breakdown in familial and social bonds.

Today, as we experience a sharp rise in anti-Semitism and racism, the Jewish and African-American communities need each other more than ever. They are bound by many things, not least of which is the memory of the greatest American of the twentieth century, the man who restored America to its founding vision of the equality of all of God’s children.

The truly incomparable Martin Luther King Jr.