One of the key tests of the quality of one’s faith is whether it moves us to live in accordance with our conscience. Faith cannot cover up our innate moral compass. Rather, it should enhance and refine our spiritual conscience. Our faith should provide us with the fuel to charge forward with what we already know in our essence we must do.
No one in the 20th century taught this message more powerfully than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King taught again and again that we must not be passive, but put our values into practice to create a just society. He even argued that “to accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system.” This year, Martin Luther King Day coincided with the second inauguration of America’s first (and re-elected) black President, Barack Obama, and the President took the oath of office with his hand on King’s Bible. To some, this was an affirmation of King’s legacy; to others, it was an inappropriate attempt to moderate King’s radical vision. Who is correct? Perhaps both sides have evidence to support their case.
Martin Luther King did not begin as a radical. He had earned his doctorate in Boston and became pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. Then in December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus there, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King soon emerged as the leader of the campaign, and established the nonviolent, civil disobedient character of the early civil rights movement, based on his reading of Thoreau and Gandhi. From then until his assassination in April 1968, King was the leading civil rights figure in America, and in 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Whenever a new campaign emerged, from the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, or the Birmingham civil rights campaign of 1963, King was called on to lend his presence and often risk arrest along with the protesters. Before his death, he had traveled 6 million miles and given 2,500 speeches for civil rights.
Maintaining faith through such a period would be difficult for anyone. In 1960, after having been arrested five times (eventually, more than 20 times), beaten often and stabbed once, and had his home bombed twice, King reflected on his faith: “I could respond to my situation either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” Commenting on the question of “unearned suffering,” which has long troubled theologians, King found solace in religion: “I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of G-d unto social and individual salvation…. The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to G-d,” (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Suffering and Faith, 41-42).
Perhaps the most significant event of the entire movement was the August 28, 1963 “March on Washington,” when hundreds of thousands of civil rights advocates gathered in Washington, D.C. On this day, King walked a tightrope, as President John F. Kennedy, fearing the alienation of southern Democrats, tried to dissuade King from having the march, while young activists were upset that King and other leaders had promised there would be no civil disobedience at the march. However, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most powerful in all of human history, easily eclipsed any controversy that day, and played a huge role in the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1965, King’s leadership in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, interrupted when state troopers trampled and beat hundreds of marchers, helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (President Lyndon B. Johnson’s skill and courage in pushing this bill in spite of the risk of losing southern Democrats should also be acknowledged).
One of the great rabbinical followers of King was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was present at the 1963 rally and marched with King in Selma. Shortly after returning from the march, Heschel wrote to King: “The day we marched together out of Selma was a day of sanctification. That day I hope will never be past to me—that day will continue to be this day.... May I add that I have rarely in my life been privileged to hear a sermon as glorious as the one you delivered at the service in Selma prior to the march.”
Perhaps the greatest human freedom is the freedom to hear one’s inner truth and to strive to live by it. Heschel wrote: “Freedom means more than mere emancipation. It is primarily freedom of conscience, bound up with inner allegiance” (The Insecurity of Freedom, 1966).
While King often worked with President Johnson and other white political leaders, he rejected the idea that he was moving “too fast,” and increasingly became frustrated at white racism and the government’s abandonment of the War on Poverty in favor of the Vietnam War. He began to focus more on economic issues as well. As early as 1964, he wrote: “The Negro is still the poorest American—walled in by color and poverty. The law pronounces him equal, abstractly, but his conditions of life are still far from equal to those of other Americans,” (Negroes are not moving too fast; 177, 180). He called for a “grand alliance of Negro and white” that would seek to eradicate “social evils” such as unemployment, which affected all youth. In April 1967, precisely a year before his assassination, King dramatically broke his political alliance with President Johnson, stated his open opposition to the war, and further advanced his evolving social justice message: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered,” (A Time to Break Silence, 240).
The culmination of this campaign was to be the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a nationwide gathering of poor people who would camp out in Washington until the needs of the poor were met by the federal government. King was prepared to go against all his former political allies in this campaign. However, on the way to Washington, King stopped in Memphis, Tennessee, to help striking garbage collectors gain a fair wage. At this point he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. While many commemorations today stress the early, seemingly moderate political views of King, his later career shows that he was always pushing for a just society, regardless of the consequences. He still challenges us today: “To end poverty, to extirpate prejudice, to free a tormented conscience, to make a tomorrow of justice, fair play and creativity—all these are worthy of the American ideal,” (Showdown for Nonviolence, 71-72).
The great French philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas taught: “The Torah itself is exposed to danger because being itself is nothing but violence, and nothing can be more exposed to violence than the Torah, which says no to it. The Law essentially dwells in the fragile human conscience which protects it badly and where it runs every risk. Those who accept this Law also go from one danger to the next. The story of Haman irritated by Mordecai attests to this danger. But this irresistible weight of being can be shaken only by this incautious conscience” (The Temptation of Temptation, Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 37).
This is the message of the Jewish tradition, that each day we must embrace ritual, prayer, and meditation that elevates the soul and awakens the human conscience to put our eternal values into practice today and every day. We are grateful as American Jews to have the inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King as role models committed to overcome injustice.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"