My Hong Kong rabbi, not a euphemism in this case is, wrote to our congregation about a recently unearthed speech by Dr Martin Luther King, delivered in 1962 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Receiving the email was a reminder of the historic ties between blacks and Jews, in part due to a shared heritage of slavery. In the US, many Jews joined hands with blacks in the struggle for equality, perhaps most famously and tragically in the 1964 murders of civil right workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The killings by members of Ku Klux Klan formed the basis of the film Mississippi Burning, galvanized mainstream US public opinion in favor of civil rights legislation, and began a 40 year fight to convict the killers, vividly recounted in Howard Ball’s Murder in Mississippi and Justice in Mississippi.
Long before the final conviction, black-Jewish ties had frayed, as my friend Jonathan Kaufman explains in his book Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America. Nelson Mandela’s passing provided reminders that Jews were also active in the African National Congress, even though Israel collaborated with South Africa’s apartheid regime. I thank United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong’s Rabbi Stanton Zamek for giving our members a subtle reminder of the historic affinity between these two minorities. During Black History Month, it’s especially appropriate to remember Dr King and his struggle for equality and justice for all.
Though segregation remained a fact of life in much of the US in the US in 1962, Dr King powerfully stated the case for equality.
In the final analysis, racial injustice must be uprooted from American society because it is morally wrong. It must be uprooted because it stands against all of the noble precepts of our Hebraic-Christian heritage. It must be done because segregation substitutes an I-it relationship for the I-Thou relationship, and relegates persons to the status of things.
The struggle against discrimination was being waged in the equivalent of hand-to-hand combat and trench warfare in 1962, yet Dr King elevated the discussion to a higher level. His words provide a stirring reminder of work that remains undone on so many fronts, perhaps even more relevant today than they were a half-century ago.
We are at one of history’s crossroads. Our technological creativity is almost boundless. We can build machines that think. We can dot the landscape with houses and super-highways teeming with cars. We can now even destroy our whole planet with the nuclear weapons we alone possess. We have wrought distance and placed time in chains. And our guided ballistic missiles have carved highways through the stratosphere. In short we have the capacity to re-build our whole planet, filling it with luxury – or we are capable of destroying it totally. The shocking issue of our age is that no one can confidently say which we will do. Whether we survive indeed depends upon whether we build moral values as fast and extensively as we construct material things.
Like the great man of faith he was, despite the dark days ahead, Dr King left listeners with a hopeful prayer.
And so I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher who didn’t quite have his grammar right, but uttered words of great symbolic profundity and they were uttered in the form of a prayer: “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.