Last Wednesday was the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In the lead up to this day, many spoke about the legacy of the march and King himself, debating the extent to which his dream of equality, justice and freedom had been achieved. The consensus was “sort of.”
Of course, in many extraordinary respects, King’s dream has been realized. I grew up in King’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and partially for that reason, he was always more than a civil rights leader, preacher or prophet to me. He was, to borrow the Yiddish idiom, a landsman. I walked King’s streets, I drank King’s water, I breathed King’s air. I have shopped at his neighborhood market and worshipped at his church. However, I am keenly aware that the Atlanta in which I grew up – a city with racially integrated schools and businesses, African-American elected officials, and streets named for King and his colleagues and friends – would have been virtually unrecognizable to King.
Indeed, my America is profoundly different than King’s America was. Much as my parents could never have imagined an America without women’s suffrage, and their parents could never have imagined an America with slavery, and my children will not be able to imagine an America without equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, I cannot imagine an America with legal racial segregation and institutionalized inequality.
And yet, in other critical respects, there are unattained aspects of the dream. Racism and inequality still exists in the United States, and other groups are still unsuccessfully striving, as King put it, to cash their freedom checks from “the bank of justice.”
To the extent, then, that King’s dream has not been fulfilled, it is important, especially as Jews – whether or not we live in America, and whether or not injustice, oppression, and inequality occurs close to home – to revisit one crucial passage of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
About halfway through the speech, King acknowledged the white people who “have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” That is to say, unless all of us are free, none of us truly are.
These words echo a more famous formulation that King composed about four months earlier while in a Birmingham jail. In a letter to some local clergy – among them a rabbi – who, while sympathetic to the struggle for civil rights, decried the involvement of “outsiders,” King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In penning those words, King knew his audience – people who understood the ethical imperatives of the Hebrew Bible and the lessons of Jewish history.
The Egyptians, for example, thought that oppressing and enslaving the Israelites would never negatively impact them. Ten plagues later, they and we all learn that injustice has a way of being revisited on its perpetrators. God reiterates this notion later in Exodus (22:21-24) when God warns the freed Israelite slaves, “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise - for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry - My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.”
Moreover, oppression can revisit even those who do not actively afflict others; apathy in the face of cruelty takes a spiritual and moral toll, for ignoring the cries of the abused empowers perpetrators of abuse. The plagues impacted those Egyptians who were not directly involved in Israelite slavery. The Holocaust reminds us that silence when others suffer may leave no one to speak for you when injustice is perpetrated against you. For these reasons, Deuteronomy admonishes, we must not be indifferent to others’ distress (22:1-4). In fact, some regard the whole Bible as a long affirmative response to Cain’s sardonic question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Thus, while King’s dream is “deeply rooted in the American dream,” it is also deeply rooted in the Jewish dream. Even 50 years later, Jews everywhere are called to affirm that as long as subjugation exists, none of us are free. When it is easier to close a school than a gun store, none of us is truly free. When black teenagers must fear armed neighborhood vigilantes, and when the strict application of the law does not align with the dictates of justice, none of us is truly free. When law enforcement has a racial bias, and when legislative act and judicial fiat threatens universal suffrage, none of us is truly free. When gay and lesbian people are bullied and brutalized, and when they are not afforded equal rights and protections, none of us is truly free. When Egyptian churches are burned, Israelis live in terror of rocket fire, Palestinians lack political freedoms, and children are gassed in the streets of Syria, none of us is free.
This Rosh Hashanah, as we consider what kind of people we want to be and what kind of world we want to build, let us remember that none of us are truly free until, to paraphrase both King and the Jewish prophet Amos, justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Rabbi Michael Knopf, a Rabbi Without Borders, is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Facebook.