Sunday, January 20, 2008



I found a speech from Martin Luther King Day, 2000. It was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial by Ralph Neas, the newly elected president of People For the American Way for the Sixth Annual Visions for Peace and Justice Program. Recall there was another newly elected president that year as well, one with a very different vision and agenda than either Ralph Neas or Dr. King.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak with you today.  It is an honor and a privilege.  I want to commend the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, Operation Understanding, and all of you who are giving your time and energy to the sixth annual "Visions of Understanding and Peace," a program for African American and Jewish teenagers to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

There is nothing more important than involving the next generation in the struggle to make this country what it can and should be. We do not know what America will look like at the end of the 21st century. But we do know it will look a lot different than it does today. It’s going to be your job to make sure that when this century comes to a close, all Americans are sharing in the blessings of freedom.

Fortunately, there are many women and men whose lives give you examples of courageous leadership.  I want to dedicate my remarks this afternoon to the Jewish and African American role models and mentors who awakened my own passion for justice when I was a teenager, those who provided me with the opportunities to serve, and those who trained me in the skills to make a difference.

One of those mentors, Marvin Caplan, died suddenly last week. He was director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He worked for justice in other ways, too. He was a leader of the labor movement, and founded a community organization here in Washington DC, devoted to combating housing discrimination and creating integrated neighborhoods. 

He never became a household name. He never sought to become famous. But he lived a life that had a profound impact on the people around him. His work helped protect the civil rights of millions of Americans who have never heard of Marvin Caplan. He and his family are especially on my mind today.

There are many others: Edward W. Brooke, the first African American elected to the United States Senate, my first boss, and my close friend; Dr. Dorothy Height, who led the National Council of Negro Women for almost four decades, and who is now chair of the Leadership Conference; and my dear departed friends, civil rights leaders Joseph Rauh, Clarence Mitchell, and Arnie Aronson. I am the beneficiary of a quality education provided by these African American and Jewish mentors.
Of course we are here, on this day, to honor specifically the life and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

It is moving and humbling to speak here in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the spirit of Dr. King, which will be a part of this place forever. One hundred years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King helped draw 250,000 Americans to this very spot. 

His "I Have a Dream" speech was this country’s second emancipation proclamation. It inspired millions of Americans to see the civil rights struggle as their struggle. It launched a new generation of Americans into the effort to bring about the "beloved community." And it inspired people like me, a white Catholic seventeen-year-old growing up in St. Charles, Illinois, a small town of 10,000 people, with only one black family and one Jewish family.

I have vivid memories of the way television brought major moments of the civil rights movement into my home and helped raise my consciousness-- the 1963 March on Washington, the images of police dogs and police brutality turned against civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, and the brutal murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

In our conference room at People For the American Way, we have a large photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. holding up pictures of those three young men-- two Jewish, one Black. It is a daily visual reminder of the risks we take by working together-- and of the even greater risks we take if we do not stand together to defeat the racism and anti-Semitism and other hatreds that are a constant threat to the American Way.

I know that, even after studying the history, it can be hard to imagine what the country was like just two generations ago. Many of your grandparents, maybe some of your parents, grew up in the United States when legalized racial discrimination and segregation was taken for granted by most Americans. It was enforced by the power of the government and defended by elected officials at every level.
It targeted every aspect of life. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years after Dr. King’s speech that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned state laws that made it a crime for a black person and white person to get married.

We have come an amazing distance since then. You are growing up in an America where most of those legal barriers have been dismantled. And maybe just as importantly, where the cultural barriers are slowly coming down. In politics, in science and sports, in music and movies, there are role models of all races who appeal to Americans across racial and ethnic lines. 

There is no question we have a long way to go. Regrettably, serious, persistent, systemic discrimination still exists in America. But that is the subject of another speech at another time. Yet the fact that we’ve come this far should energize us to the real possibilities of progress, and of the power of committed individuals to shape the world around them.

I am sure you all have studied the history of Black and Jewish partnership in the civil rights movement. Long before the 1960s, Black and Jewish intellectuals and activists were working in coalition. Together, they planned a strategy for ending legal segregation in the nation’s public schools and pursued that strategy in the federal courts. Together they convinced elected officials to pass a series of landmark civil rights laws. And together they risked violence and death to make sure that no American would be denied the right to vote.

Of course, every partnership has its ups and downs, and this one is no exception. Having served for fourteen years as the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 180 very different and very independent organizations, I know that forging a consensus can be a daunting challenge.

But when it works-- when African American and Latino and Asian-Pacific American civil rights groups come together; when Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic organizations reach consensus with labor, Native American, women, disability and gay rights groups, there is nothing more rewarding and nothing more powerful.

We don’t talk about power very often. Indeed, some people are uncomfortable to admit seeking power because power has the potential to be misused. But power itself isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. What counts is how we build power and what kind of moral vision we have for its use. Dr. King once said "I’m not interested in power for power’s sake, but I’m interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good. This is what we are trying to do in America."

This moral vision is critical. Dr. King was not powerful for any of the reasons that we normally think make people powerful. He didn’t have tremendous wealth. He didn’t have weapons or an Army. He became a powerful force for change because he had a powerful vision. He urged his followers to meet political power with the power of their souls.

The success of the Black-Jewish alliance over the years has been grounded in visions of humanity and justice that are far larger than any particular legislation. They are visions of justice drawn from Jewish spiritual teachings and from the Black Church. 

African American religious leaders have long turned to the Hebrew scriptures and prophets. Those teachings about an enslaved people led to freedom by their faith have had particular resonance for people whose history of enslavement in America is still much longer than their history of freedom.  Many of the Jewish leaders and activists I know find a spiritual touchstone in the concept of tikkun olam, the duty to heal and repair the world. That is what we are all here to do.

Our world is changing. America’s racial landscape is becoming far more complex than black and white. Our ethnic backgrounds are European and African and Latin American and Middle Eastern and East Asian and South Asian. We have always been more diverse than Christians and Jews, and are becoming more so. In addition to an immense variety of Christians and Jews, America is home to growing communities of Muslims-- Black and Arab-- of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and more. Our schools reflect these changes in our communities.

That is happening. It is a reality. And it’s not just in New York and Los Angeles. We have Hindu temples and cultural centers in Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia, and Greenville, South Carolina.

The Census Bureau recently predicted that by the end of the 21st century, America will look radically different than it does today. There will be no racial or ethnic majority. We will all be minorities. Some people fear that, the way they fear our growing religious pluralism. They cling to the idea that America is a Christian nation. They are frantically trying to post the Ten Commandments in every public school and every public building. But this is not a country that was founded for Christians, with others to be tolerated. The founders were careful to make it clear that the rights and duties of citizenship had nothing to do with your religious beliefs or your lack of them. What was important to know about a public official was not his religious convictions, but his commitment to the principles of the Constitution.

After a violent year in which synagogues and churches were firebombed and worshippers killed, it is especially important to reaffirm the principle that America is not only for people of one color or one religion. Last year followers of white supremacist groups attacked and killed Jews and Americans of color and gays. As a nation, we have made progress but we have not yet overcome the purveyors of hatred.

I’m sure many of you have read the words attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller, speaking about the Nazis in Germany:

In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me-- and by that time no one was left to speak up.

You are here to speak up. It has taken generations of struggle to call the nation to be true to the ideals it has held forth. That was part of the genius of Martin Luther King. He said to Americans, look, we’re not preaching some idea that’s radically different, we’re just taking this country at its word-- that we’re all created equal, that all of us have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The core philosophy espoused by Martin Luther King-- "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"-- is the inspiration for today’s broader civil rights movement, one that embraces the rights of all persons of color, of women, of disabled Americans, of gay and lesbian Americans, and indeed of all Americans.

Every generation must take up this work. Some of you may become leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. Others may make a quiet difference like Marvin Caplan. But we need you all in the struggle.

Before I conclude, I would like to share with you a very personal story. When I was a young adult, I had an experience that was entirely unexpected, an experience that changed my life forever. I was struck with Guillian-Barré Syndrome– also known as "French polio"-- a syndrome that left me totally paralyzed for 75 days, unable even to breathe without a respirator. I spent months in the hospital and many more months recovering. It is not an experience I would wish on anyone. 

But that terrible and terrifying ordeal taught me some invaluable lessons. It reminded me how dependent we are on our family, our friends, and our faith. It reminded me how precious life is-- every moment that we have. And most importantly, it prompted me to renew my vows to use my professional talents to make a difference for my family, for my community, and for my country.

That is why I became director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. That is why I ran for Congress. And that is why I am now serving as President of People For the American Way.

Every day is an opportunity to make a difference. Every life can be used to change the world. Your being here is a sign that you, too, are eager to make a difference. And don’t think you have to be a Martin Luther King to make that difference.

Up on the hill behind us is the grave site of another great American, one who had a special impact on my generation. In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a group of young people in South Africa. Here’s part of what he said:

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

You here today are those centers of energy and daring.
I will leave you with a Martin Luther King quote that Dorothy Height shared with those of us at Marvin Caplan’s memorial service last Friday. She rediscovered it in Shared Dreams, a new book by Rabbi Mark Schneier, on Martin Luther King and the Jewish Community.

To avoid involvement in behalf of a just cause… is to live a sterile life. It is the quality of life that one leads that gives it meaning and value, not its length. From the saying of Jesus, "He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it," I draw the fullest meaning and implication for my life… The exhortation of the prophet, "Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue," rings constantly in my ears.
In the words of Dr. King, let us go forth today and become "Drum Majors for Justice."

Thank you very much.

How is it possible that we-- a democracy-- have chosen to adhere to the tragic vision of a man like George Bush rather than to the selfless and principled visions of men like Martin Luther King, Marvin Caplan and Ralph Neas. Think about that when people try talking you into giving McCain or Willard or The Huckster a second thought. We owe it to ourselves and to this country that has given us so much to be better.

I'm in the middle of reading the powerful new book by Mort Rosenblum, veteran A.P. international correspondant, Escaping Plato's Cave-- How Ameirca's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival. It's a brilliant and compelling critique of contemporary American society and media but something in it caught my attention today. Rosenblum contends that "by seeing the world with narrow vision, by not understanding others and assuming vastly disparate societies will react to sticks and carrots as it would, America as a nation has lost its ability to inspire." I know what Rosenblum means by "inspire," of course but I immediately thought about how George Bush's 7 years at the helm has indeed been used as inspiration around the world-- inspiration, for example, to steal elections and undermine the very nature of democracy. After we allowed him to get away with the theft of the 2000 election, how many times were identical tactics used around the world? I'm not even talking about Bush Regime efforts to overthrow legitimate governments in Venezuela and Bolivia-- but about corrupted, stolen fraudulent elections in occupied Iraq, in Kenya, in Zimbabwe, in Thailand, Russia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan... possibly even Britain. The good news: just one year from today.



At 5:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rightly you said, we can celebrate Martin king's week rather than a day. He's man of example, who live an example of how the leader should be..
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At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the book recommendation..
I just ordered the book for my daughters 18 birthday. She just wrote the college common essay application on Platos cave.

She turns 18 in March. She is so excited about being able to vote, that she has asked me to throw her a voting party.
I have no doubt what ever she ends up doing she will change her small corner of the world and leave it a better place.And that place will be a WHOLE lot better with out Chimpy...
364 days and counting


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