Monday is the national holiday in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Across America there will be commemorations and celebrations as people recall the life and legacy of a great man who was cut down at age 39 by an assassin’s bullet.
Many of Dr. King’s prophetic words will once again be read, and once again people will note that his glorious dream has yet to become a reality. There will be feel-good moments of hope and determination that the long arc of the moral universe that Dr. King envisioned will continue to bend toward justice and, one day, descend upon America.
But the celebrations themselves will also reveal something both troubling and ugly about the current state of American race relations: the holiday will be hugely impactful to the Black community and only marginally so — or not at all — to many white Americans.
I have had the honor of participating in multiple MLK celebrations with the Detroit Black community for many years. The holiday is not just an important day in the Black community — it is a sacred day. Black churches across America will host their special observances this Sunday; many Black civic organizations, educational institutions and museums will hold their own commemorations, both virtually and in-person. Throughout Black America, people of all ages, faiths and economic backgrounds will be personally engaged in some type of hands-on commemoration of the most iconic civil rights leader in American history.
So I have to ask: what will the majority of white people be doing that day? How will they be treating the holiday? Surely some will be observing the day in some meaningful way, but what about the masses? Will they be attending any type of MLK celebration, if only virtually? Will they even think to use the day as a teaching moment for their children, or will they see it as a day to go shopping or skiing or ignore the day altogether, or denigrate it with insensitive or dismissive commentary?
Much of white America has opposed MLK Day since it was enacted by Congress in 1983. Many states and politicians fought fiercely against Coretta Scott King’s campaign to create the holiday. Some states have attempted to undermine the day by combining it with other themes. In Alabama and Mississippi, it is still commonly referred to as the “King-Lee” holiday for General Robert E. Lee. Racists have gotten more brazen in their opposition in recent years, with some white supremacy groups holding anti-MLK rallies on the day, and sometimes crashing pro-MLK rallies.
It is a twisted reality of America in 2022 that a man who stood for — and gave his life for — racial understanding and nonviolence has become such a lightning rod for those who preach hate.
So for the rest of us — especially those in the Jewish community — a meaningful observance of the day is especially fitting and necessary. “We must take sides,” Elie Wiesel wrote. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
There are myriad ways to do something meaningful this MLK Day. Locally, the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity is holding its annual celebration at Rev. Kenneth Flower’s Mt. Moriah Church this Sunday morning, a virtual service you can attend via youtube or facebook. It’s a perfect — and practical — opportunity to get involved. In the words of Coretta Scott King:
The holiday must be substantive as well as symbolic. It must be more than a day of celebration. Let this holiday be a day of reflection, a day of teaching nonviolent philosophy and strategy, a day of getting involved in nonviolent action for social and economic progress.
The Jewish community implores the rest of the world to never forget. We are a people who have experienced unimaginable tragedy, and we go to great lengths to teach the lessons of Jewish history to our children. But we do not have a monopoly on suffering. We cannot rate our misery about other victims of unspeakable crimes, like slavery in America, or the genocide in Rwanda — one million deaths in 90 days, mostly by machete — or the killing fields of Cambodia. The list goes on. It’s not a contest, and we must recognize that, as Dr. King noted, “Bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.”
Last January, we witnessed an attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capital. We saw rioters carrying Confederate flags, white supremacist and antisemitic groups, signs and shirts that read “Camp Auschwitz: Work Brings Freedom” and 6MNE (six million’s not enough).
Hate is raging in America in 2022. Combating hate is the call to action of our lifetime. Never forget means answering that call.
Embracing the Dream of Dr. King
January 16, 2022, 10am
Please join the Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church and the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity for an interfaith service embracing the dream of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The sermon will be led by the Reverend Kenneth James Flowers of Greater New Mt. Moriah, with guest speakers from the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity. Tune in via youtube or facebook.