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Martin Luther King Jr. and the Hebrew prophets

The night before his death, 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968, an exhausted Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Masonic Temple in Memphis. King arrived at the Lorraine Motel that afternoon so tired that he asked his second-in-command, Ralph Abernathy, to speak in his place. The night was stormy, tornado warnings had been issued, and the crowd in the giant hall was small. From a pay phone in the vestibule, Abernathy implored King to come out and keep faith with the sanitation workers who had braved the elements.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch describes what happened: “King’s entrance caused an eerie bedlam. Cheers from the floor echoed around the thousands of empty seats above, and the whole structure rattled from the pounding elements of wind, thunder, and rain. King came to the microphone at about 9:30, just as the storm was cresting, and launched into a rambling, rather unremarkable speech, until he came to the ending. ‘But it doesn’t matter now…because I’ve been to the mountaintop,’ he declared in a trembling voice. Cheers and applause erupted. ‘Like anybody I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place.’ The whole building suddenly hushed, which let sounds of thunder and rain fall from the roof. ‘But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.’ There was a subdued call of ‘Yes!’ in the crowd. “And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain,” King cried, building intensity. “And I’ve looked over. And I have seen the Promised Land.”

“King’s eyes were brimming now, and a trace of a smile crossed his face. ‘And I may not get there with you,’ he shouted, ‘but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.’

“By now the crowd was clapping and crying and the other preachers were closing in behind him. King rushed into his close and stumbled sideways into a hug from Abernathy. The preachers helped him to a chair, some crying, and tumult washed through the Masonic Temple.”

In an unforgettable way, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded the American people with his last words that though a man may die, a dream does not. And it is no happenstance that King was referencing Moses, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. Time and again King drew inspiration from the prophets of old.

In his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in 1963, King wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns…so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”

In his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington that year, King quotes the prophet Amos: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” He quoted Isaiah: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Perhaps King’s most stirring words about the prophets were delivered at an address to the Synagogue Council of America on December 5, 1966. King began this section of his speech by saying, “When silence threatens to take the power of decision out of our hands … one looks into history for the courage to speak even in an unpopular cause. Looming as ethical giants are those extraordinary of men, the Hebrew prophets.”

King continues with this vivid description of the prophets: “They did not believe that conscience is a still, small voice. They believed that conscience thunders or it does not speak at all. They were articulate, passionate, and fearless, attacking injustice and corruption whether the guilty be kings or their own unrepentant people. Without physical protection, scornful of risks evoked by their unpopular messages, they went among the people with no shield other than truth.”

King stirringly concludes: “Today we particularly need the Hebrew prophets because they taught that to love God was to love justice; that each human being has an inescapable obligation to denounce evil where he sees it and to defy a ruler who commands him to break the covenant. The Hebrew prophets are needed today because decent people must be imbued with the courage to speak the truth, to realize that silence may temporarily preserve status or security but to live with a lie is a gross affront to God. The Hebrew prophets are needed today because we need their flaming courage; we need them because the thunder of their fearless voices is the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and clamor of war hysteria….”

A final testimony to King’s remarkable connection with the prophets: In 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the famous march on Selma, historian Taylor Branch described in an interview the influence of the Jewish theologian and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1963 book, “The Prophets,” on King. He says: “He became like a driven Old Testament prophet…[King and]all those guys used to carry around Heschel’s book. They really identified with the prophets.” Many of us are familiar with the iconic picture of Heschel and King marching together in Selma, and Heschel’s remark that “I felt like my feet were praying.” Beyond the enduring friendship of this rabbi and minister, Branch writes that “Heschel’s seminal study of the prophets…gained the eager devotion of King and his fellow pastors.”

A half century after his untimely death, and as we celebrate an extraordinary life that now is marked with a national holiday, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. inspires and challenges us anew. His devotion to prophetic ideals bids us in the Jewish community to rediscover our outspoken biblical forbears and their quest for justice. How can we walk the prophetic path in these troubled times? How can we speak truth to power? How can we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly”? For as our great sage Hillel said, “But leave it to Israel; if they are not prophets, yet they are the children of prophets.”

Barry L. Schwartz is director of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia. His forthcoming book, “Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life” will be the subject of this year’s Sweet Tastes of Torah community night of learning , sponsored by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis on February 3.

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