When he died in 2001, Rabbi Chaim Stern left a vast collection of groundbreaking – though unpublished – writings on myriad topics. This essay was written on April 11, 1969, approximately a year after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was the outstanding spokesperson for non-violent change while he lived. Like his teacher and inspirer, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King suffered the ironic fate of death by violence. Since Dr. King’s assassination, no one remotely approaching him in stature has taken his place. If such was the purpose of his assassin or assassins, they succeeded. But the death of a man like Dr. King can only serve, in the long run, to prove the truth for which he stood, and which he was tireless in proclaiming, “…there are hardhearted and bitter individuals among us who would combat the opponent with physical violence and corroding hatred. Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace. I am convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of chaos.” (King, Strength to Love, p. 7)
King was talking here to his own people, admonishing them to fight hatred with love, violence with peace, bigotry with understanding and forbearance. He was asking his bitter, bitter brothers and sisters to be sweet, to be better perhaps that then people who hated them, feared them, wronged them. And yet, although his words are addressed to his own people, they apply to all people, and we have reason to know that he was right: the destructive hate to which he fell victim has bred still more hatred.
We are farther away from a peaceful society today than we were a year ago. The goal so dear to Dr. King has been all but abandoned, and is little spoken of; no voice now appeals to the conscience in the way he did; eloquent expressions of faith in our capacity to walk hand in hand out of the sorry quagmire of misery are stilled; his combination of passion, intellectual force and dignity was and is among the rarest of human attributes. He ennobled us as he confronted us, so that now by his absence we are diminished. The disciples of cynicism, those ridden by fear, the ones who carry too great a burden of unconscious guilt for them to face it – these now seem to carry the day.
When Dr. King was alive, he made it just a little more difficult for us to feel comfortable. His death came as a shock but not as a surprise. He knew it was coming; he spoke of it. More than once he had been attacked; it was only a matter of time before an attack would succeed. That the larger cause for which he gave his life would prevail in the long run brings all too little comfort. But other lives will be richer for his sacrificial life. He could have had it easy – at least, easier than he did have it – but he chose the nobler course.
He was a deeply spiritual man, sustained by faith in humanity and God. With that faith, built on strong intellectual and moral foundations, he led his people forward. He was not given to illusions about the nature of the problems and the obstacles to be overcome. Repeatedly he expressed his clear perception of these obstacles. Some lie within us as individuals, others have been built into our society; they are economic, psychological and moral. And yet, when he was at the lowest ebb of his strength, he would find in his soul the faith to carry on, the conviction that somehow we will overcome – overcome the injustice, overcome the faults within the Black community, overcome the violence which had made the Black experience a nightmare for four centuries on these shores.
A few days after his death, a 7-year-old boy was moved to write this:
“Dr. Martin Luther King was a great man. He tried to help all the poor black people. And he was going around trying to help black people and white people to stop fighting so much. And when I heard that he got shot and died I felt like crying…. I saw his funeral on Saturday. And I don’t see why Black people and White people can’t be friends. We are all made the same way inside so why can’t we be friends," (The Me Nobody Knows, p. 120)
How shall we answer this child’s questions? We Jews have long since asked similar questions about the way in which we were treated. We have believed that the treatment of the Jew is the barometer by which can be measured the civilization – or lack of it – of any society. So it is today. And similarly with the Black people of our land. Our spiritual fate depends in no small measure on the progress we make toward racial peace and justice. We must at long last come to know the truth of James Baldwin’s words:
“Whether I like it or not, or whether you like it or now, we are bound together forever. We are part of each other. What is happening to every Negro in this country at any time is also happening to you.” (Nobody Knows My Name)
And why shouldn’t we know this – we, whose Scripture proclaims “You shall love the stranger, for you know the heart of the strangers, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“…so why can’t we be friends?” How shall we answer this child’s question? Shall Dr. King’s spirit live on? Or shall hope slowly die for this generation. The answer lies within us.
Rabbi Chaim Stern was the editor-in-chief of Gates of Prayer and Gates of Repentance, the major liturgies of Judaism’s Reform Movement, as well as other prayer books and educational materials. Rabbi Stern died in 2001, leaving a vast series of groundbreaking – though unpublished – writings on a wide spectrum of topics. This and other essays and excerpts by Rabbi Stern have been compiled Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, his longtime associate, and Lea Lane Stern, his widow.
Rabbi Ross is an intentional interim rabbi, currently serving Monroe Temple Beth El of Liberal Judaism in Monroe, NY. His latest book is When a Lie Is Not a Sin: The Hebrew Bible’s Framework for Deciding.