January 21, 2008

In the Words of Dr. King

Although commemorations can be wonderful, there is no better way in my mind to celebrate the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. than to look back at the words of Dr. King, himself. This year, on the 40th anniversary of the sanitation worker strike that led to Dr. King’s fatal visit to Memphis, I’ve selected passages from Dr. King’s final speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the night before his death. The speech was entirely extemporaneous and came while a thunderstorm raged outside. Many people know of the prophetic conclusion to this speech, but the entire speech is valuable. Dr. King invokes the concept of “dangerous unselfishness,” in which people will put the plight of others above their own, taking action rather than being “compassionate by proxy.” Here are some of the portions of the speech I found important. I encourage all of you to spend a few minutes finding your own favorite Dr. King passages (a couple of sites with MLK speeches are here and here).

“Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same – ‘We want to be free...We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

On the choice each of us faces when we find injustice...
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…[Jesus] talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project “I” into the “thou” and to be concerned about his brother.
We use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings…and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting….But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road…It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing…And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: “If I do not help this man, what will happen to him?”
That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?”
“If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.”

The prophetic conclusion...
"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 Gd’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 my 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.”

Previous MLK Day posts: 2006 and 2007.

January 09, 2008

Political Notebook - The Victim Olympics

I vividly remember a conversation with my father. I must have been on the cusp of adolescence, beginning to figure out how the world worked -- recognizing that my parents didn't know quite everything and that though my life had been charmed, it really may not be fair for everyone. I had figured out something in my head for the first time and I was about to speak it out loud so that my father could confirm its truth. I said something along the lines of, "I can never be the president, can I?"

"Why not?" my dad must have asked because no good father would allow his son's dreams to start being limited by reality even before reaching high school.

"Because were Jewish," I answered. For the first time in my life I began to understand that the things I had been taught to believe about my country and the world may not be as true as we all wished they were. I was deeply saddened, not because I had a particular interest in being president, but because I recognized for the first time that the American dream seemed to have limits, that sometimes reality got in the way of that dream.

Even as I've gotten older and have sadly grown accustomed to finding limits on the American dream, I retain a healthy sense of disappointment each time I realize that a particular person is being put at a disadvantage. And in our country's history, no traits have been more disadvantageous than being female, black, and/or poor. (my Judaism may have dashed any White House dreams, but it has hardly been a glass ceiling) As I watch the race for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, it is inspiring to me because each candidate is proving that even these most disadvantageous of traits can be overcome.

First, Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses and sent a shockwave of hope through the country. For a moment, Obama reminded us of the possibilities our country can offer. However, as good as Obama's victory made me feel, I was troubled by the rush coronation of him as our national savior (I'm talking to you Chris Matthews) as well as the sense that his victory as an African American was the only way Iowa could have signaled a new page turned in our history. It was as if they had forgotten that an African American had won presidential primaries before (Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988), but a woman had not.

Hillary Clinton is blazing a trail no less important than the one being forged by Barack Obama. I am thrilled as a civil rights advocate to see Obama with a real shot at winning the nomination, but I am also overjoyed as the father of a daughter to see Hillary breaking her own ground. The shame of this primary is that I am being forced to choose between them -- only one page can be turned in 2008. And I am being asked to evaluate whether an African American or a woman in the White House would better represent national progress.

On this question, Hillary Clinton is at a disadvantage, not because she is a woman, but because she is a Clinton. Were Hillary Clinton any other woman, she probably would not be able to mount a viable campaign, for it is her last name and not her resume of decades confronting the status quo that seems to legitimize her candidacy.

In an excellent op-ed in the New York Times, Gloria Steinam wrote that a female with Barack Obama's biography would have no grounds for even running for the Senate, much less the White House. As I see it, the opposite is also true -- a male with Hillary Clintons biography would be so qualified for the White House that he would have run years ago. Looking at it this way, it is hard to dispute Steinam's assertion that, at least when it comes to leadership, the female glass ceiling is lower.

This all boils down to what some call the Victim Olympics -- which group has had it worse? There is no answer to this question and the very fact that two groups that have been historically disenfranchised and extraordinarily underrepresented in American political leadership are competing in this way demonstrates how distant racial and gender equity remains.

With this in mind, I was encouraged to see Hillary triumph in New Hampshire and lengthen the race so that more voters will have the opportunity to make their choice between two ground-breaking, convention-shattering, (insert your own cliche here) candidates that may have once questioned whether they could be barred from serving as president, but are now refusing to accept an American dream with limits.