The Laconia Human Relations Committee sponsored a celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., honoring his life and legacy on Sunday, January 15th at the Belknap Mill. Many local dignitaries including TBI’s own Rabbi Jan Katz spoke at the event. This is the text of Rabbi Katz’s speech.
Good afternoon. And, thank you to all the organizers of today’s program and to all of you who are here to support it and commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Junior. My name is Rabbi Jan Katz and I am the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel right here in Laconia. Part-time and living out of state, it was truly serendipitous that this is my weekend here in January, and thus able to join together with all of you today. I speak on behalf of my beloved congregation and on behalf of the core values, beliefs, and mission of Judaism, a faith steeped in action and justice for every human being. I also speak to you today in recognition of my ongoing personal journey towards awareness and engagement in the struggle for equity for African American people and for all people of color.
Psychologist and author Brene Brown writes: “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” I share with you two personal stories that steered me from ignorance and apathy towards awareness, activism, and profound humility in the face of other people’s struggles. The first is a 52-year-old memory when I spent my college junior year in Israel, the year of black power takeovers on every liberal arts college campus in the United States. White people saw the protests as aggressive, even hostile, while downplaying the sincere and long overdue objectives of getting colleges to admit more Black students, hire more Black faculty, and establish Black Studies departments and majors.
Back then, Black power protests were not only a force in numbers and conviction, but also in the Black-only makeup of the enterprise. Whites–uninvited. For Black people across America, white faces both diluted the power of the image and were too allied to a white agenda to help the cause.
A very dear and close childhood African American friend, with whom I shared middle school, high school, and college, who embraced the activist legacy of Angela Davis, rejected me upon my return from Israel, without explanation, never to speak to me again. Naive, hurt, and indignant at the dissolution of our long friendship, I had no place, anymore, in the life of my friend because I was white. In June of 2020, I wrote what may have been a perfunctory apology after all these years to this old friend, who appeared on our high school alumni list as an administrator in the Louisiana state government. Can an apology alone heal the wounds of 400 years? What actions can I, can we, take.. to address today my friend’s existential hurts? She did not respond and I read her obituary in September 2022.
The rawness of hurt and guilt also loomed large in a 3000-mile pilgrimage with my spouse in January of 2019 to civil and human rights museums and memorials in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, dedicated to the legacy and impact of slavery and human trafficking in the United States, still a reality.
In the Atlanta Museum of Civil and Human Rights, in the very first room of the museum, the unedited, uncut scene of 4 young African American students sitting on the white-only stools at the lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina at the Woolworth department store on February 1, 1960. Relentless beatings by white bystanders ensued against these brave black students, who refused to move. The scene replayed in my ears and eyes through virtual audio headphones and historic footage for 3 interminable minutes, as I sat at the lunch counter replica, and brought me to uncontrollable sobbing, and then, tight hugs from a young African American museum docent. All I could spurt out to her “I’m sorry; I’m sorry; I’m sorry.”
In a small Selma, Alabama museum by the Edward Pettis Bridge, the photo on the wall of MLK and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching side by side from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 for voting rights for African Americans filled me with pride and hope, as a welcomed interlude from defeat to defeat to defeat.
A project that materialized into the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery began with visits to hundreds of lynching sites, collecting soil beneath the lynching trees, and erecting public markers to provide public testimony to the more than 6500 African Americans hung on these trees without provocation between 1865 and 1950. Walking the endless rows of these markers in the outdoor memorial clustered by county and state is drowning in the truth of our past in order to emerge with new eyes and hearts.
Here is one more story: A well-respected and personal black clergy friend was a guest speaker at a Zoom worship service in my home community three weeks after the death of George Floyd. He said “don’t be afraid to sit in the gutter with me and cry and hold my hand. Then, when we are all cried out, take me home and feed me.” My friend was saying, I think, that he needs more than my vote or voice. He needs my heart strength, offered in friendship and compassion. And the tears – they are more than symbolic acts. They are, at one and the same time, testifying that we finally listened, that we are ready to atone, and to begin anew. Crying is not a fix for injustices, but it is a show of sincere compassion.
Against the continuing backdrop of racist tensions in this country, the words of Martin Luther King Junior continue to remind us how crucial and spiritually necessary it is, not to divide our world or our experiences into black and white, dark and light; rather to remember that we human beings are all intertwined in a common, mixed fate.
MLK himself utilized the biblical Exodus narrative as a metaphor for the Black journey to freedom. In his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968, we hear his voice:
“We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity,” he said. Martin and Moses were both champions of justice, and also understood that every human, every ordinary human, is born in the image of God and deserves to live out their days endowed with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
King often quoted Deuteronomy 16:20: Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof – Justice, Justice, shall you pursue; and Amos 5:24: Let justice well up like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream. Albeit Moses was a Jew and Martin Luther King a Christian, both understood that redemption applies to all faiths, all humanity. May we all dig deep into our own humanity to identify and confront our own stories of fear and bias, and transform them to future stories of love and acceptance. Thank you for listening to my voice and let each of you use your voice to live out MLK’s intentions. We say in our tradition: kein yihiye ratzon – May it be so! Thank you.