A few months ago I visited Washington D.C. (for a wedding) and stood at the Lincoln memorial. It was late at night but my son and I were determined to do some sightseeing away from the crowds. Without fail, I get emotional whenever I visit that hallowed ground. Do I get emotional because I am overcome with gratitude to stand on that special spot? Or is it because I have seen the footage and heard the recording so many times that it always - always - gets me emotional? Or is it because I am worried that this generation is disconnected from the power of the speeches that so move me and I am so old (-fashioned) and from a different era?
I touch the engraved marble and run my fingers over the words, “I have a dream.” I turned to my 14-year-old son and asked him, “You do know this spot? You do know the speech?” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Of course I do. And I know Torah too and in a lot of ways his speeches are similar.” Indeed.
We teach about Dr. King and the role of the Jewish community in the Civil Rights Movement not just because it reminds us of our Jewish place in the narrative of the civil rights movement. We teach about Dr. King and his countless speeches and quotes because so much of what he said is rooted in Jewish text and can still guide us today.
In teaching this week about the life and meaning of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I was introduced to a 2022 perspective on some of my favorite quotes in a discussion with our Brawerman Elementary School 6th graders.
Using a chart that connects quotes of Dr. King to similar Jewish texts I asked my grade 6 students to talk about which of the quotes spoke to them the most. Here is a bit of what they said:
Leo: “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)” It is like what Dr. King did still flows from generation to generation.
Zoe: “(Dr. King) carried everyone so they could have a chance to use their voices today.”
Taylor: “It is not your duty to complete the work but you are not at liberty to neglect it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16)
Zoe: “Even if you can’t finish the work you still have to try. We have to put our best work out there it is more important than an accomplishment if it is one you are not proud of.”
Sally: “I think it means that even if you are not the one who started the Civil Rights movement it also doesn’t mean that you can ignore it or not do anything about it.”
Then I asked the students, “Ok, Were you alive when the Civil Rights movement started?”
“NO!” everyone answered.
“So, is it still your work?” I asked.
Sally: “We still need to keep it alive and it is still our job to finish it and learn from his life and teaching even in the smallest way.”
Jonah: “I think we can learn a lot from, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.'(MLK, 1963, Strength to Love) If someone is being hateful, you should be lovefull back. Lovefull? Be full of love when there is too much hate.”
My students defended their position that the dream of Dr. King has partially come true. There are no longer separate busses and water fountains. But, they reminded me, racism is still a part of our culture and it leads to other trends of hatred like anti-semitism. We learn about Dr. King so that we each remember to find our voice and to have our dreams. We hope that our descendants will look back and realize we did our part in improving the human condition.
Our words and our calling are connected today as much as they were in 1963 when a dreamer shared his dream. Indeed, the words are so familiar. If you listen closely you can even hear the soulful singing and jubilation we read in this week’s Torah portion, The Song of the Sea. I’m sure you know the one, Mi Chamocha. “Who is like you God?” It is the song the Jewish people sang as we danced our way from slavery to freedom.