MLK Day is over, but the inspiration we can draw from the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. do not need to be confined to one day. This year, more than ever, the lessons of the civil rights movement feel relevant to our historical moment.
On January 15, the three synagogues in Summit showed a film, “Shared Legacies,” that portrayed the powerful alliance between African Americans and Jews during the 1960s. The message of the film seemed important at a time of rising antisemitism, increased awareness of the ongoing effects of systemic racism in our society, and an increased incidence of hate crimes generally. What moved me most were the ways that Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and so many others insisted on seeing and valuing the humanity of all people. As part of a people that has been dehumanized and targeted by hate throughout our history, how can we fail to be inspired by people who could see past our differences to our common humanity?
In the film, Yavilla McCoy, the founder of Ayecha, a nonprofit that provides resources and advocacy for Jews of color, spoke eloquently about the need for proximity between Jews and African Americans “so we carry each other’s stories in our hearts, minds, and spirits.” We must bring our communities back together “not for the sake of saving each other’s poor unfortunate souls, but for the sake of understanding the essential human dignity, we each carry.” She makes a plea to all of us “not to let go of the years and years of energy, fight, and bodies on the line. To not let go of their legacy.”
In discussion groups after the film and in a panel of Black and Jewish clergy, we talked about the need to build mutual respect and trust. One of my congregants who watched the film but was unable to attend the discussion wrote to me: “I don’t see any other way forward except to take the time to work together and forge close and trusting relationships.” She was talking specifically about Blacks and Jews, but I think this message applies equally to all the ways we are separated from those we see as different from ourselves.
As a society and as a global community, we are facing enormous challenges that no one person and no one group can solve alone. As my congregant said, there is no way around taking the time to understand each other’s history and experience and building the trust we need to work together.
I am proud to say that the Black and Jewish communities in Summit have worked hard over the past several years to forge relationships through joint storytelling projects, an annual liberation seder, and ongoing antiracism work. During the pandemic, it has been more challenging, but at the annual MLK Day service at Fountain Baptist, I was reminded of the importance of continuing to build relationships because our work is not done.
The guest preacher at the service, Reverend Willie Francois III of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, spoke about the prophet Elijah. Most Jews associate Elijah with Passover, but Reverend Francois retold the story of Elijah singlehandedly taking on 450 prophets of Baal. After Elijah demonstrates that the Hebrew God is the true power in the universe, Queen Jezebel wants to kill him, so he flees. As he hides in a cave, a mighty wind passes by, but God is not in the wind. After the wind, there is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there is fire, but God is not in the fire. After the fire, there is a “soft murmuring sound,” or “a still, small voice.”
“Why are you here, Elijah?” God asks. When Elijah answers, “The Israelites have forsaken your covenant. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life,” God responds, “Go back, Elijah.”
Of course, Reverend Francois is not aware that in our annual cycle of Torah readings, we are now reading the Book of Exodus, but I can’t help but note the parallels between Elijah’s and Moses’ stories. At the beginning of Exodus, Moses kills an Egyptian taskmaster and runs away, fearing for his life. God speaks to him at the burning bush, telling him to go back to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. Moses reluctantly agrees to return and speak to the Israelites, but they don’t listen. Their spirits are crushed. Moses wants to give up, but God keeps sending him back.
Reverend Francois connected the story of Elijah with Martin Luther King Jr. He said that during the last year of his life, Dr. King was depressed. Like Elijah, even after great success, he felt defeated. The forces against him were powerful, and people indeed were out to take his life.
Reverend Francois pointed out that we have turned King into a mythic, superhuman figure. The danger is that no one can live up to that. But King was human, like all of us. And there were days when he could not get out of bed.
I think many of us have days when we struggle to get out of bed, when we would rather hide in a cave. So it is important to remember that even though Dr. King had those days, he did not give up. In February 1968, two months before he was killed, he gave a speech in Washington and said: “On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Dr. King heard the still, small voice telling him to do what was right, telling him to “go back.” He refused to give up, and in April 1968 he went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, even though it was not safe nor politic nor popular.
“We won’t always win,” Reverend Francois told us. “There have been many defeats. But we were born to rebel against injustice.” He reminded us that Moses rebelled against Pharaoh, Elijah rebelled against the prophets of Baal, and MLK rebelled against racism and Jim Crow. We may have to recalibrate. We may have to learn to retell our story. We will surely need to remember that we have listened to our conscience and done what is right in the past, and we can do it again. “The fight is not over, and we know too much about ourselves to give up in the middle,” he said.
“Go back,” God tells Elijah. The work is not done.
After the service, I spoke with two women who have been active in the Summit community, who have worked hard to bring people together, who always try to make things better in whatever ways they can. One said that Rev. Francois’ message really spoke to her because she has been feeling depressed and defeated. I said, “Me too!” Who hasn’t felt like hiding in a cave the past few years? With the pandemic, the political divisions in our country, the rise of hate, and the breakdown of democracy, it has been hard to keep going and feel hopeful.
For me, it was helpful to hear that Dr. King was depressed at the end of his life. We are all human. It’s normal to look at the world and see the fires raging and want to hide in a cave. There will be days when it’s hard to get out of bed. But if we have the courage to build strong, trusting relationships, we can help each other remember that we have done what is right in the past, and we can do it again. We will not always win, but we can listen to the still, small voice that tells us: “Go back. There is more to do.”
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is a past president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding and active member of the council’s anti-racism committee.