Yesterday marked 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was in that southern city to support a strike by local sanitation workers who were protesting unfair pay and dangerous working conditions (two workers had been crushed to death in garbage compactors). By 1968, Dr. King had launched the Poor People’s Campaign, an expansion of the Civil Rights Movement into the realm of economic justice, seeking to address poverty for all poor Americans, across color lines.
What was lost on that April day was a key leader in the struggle for dignity for all human beings. What was lost was a “drum major for justice.” What was lost was a prophet of our own times, flawed like all people are, but steadfast in his challenge to America to live up to its ideals and to fulfill its dream.
I am mindful, of course, that this sad anniversary comes during Passover, our festival of freedom. We celebrate our redemption from slavery long ago, even as we acknowledge, in the words of our haggadah, that “our redemption is bound up with the deliverance from bondage of people everywhere.” Well we know that, even after leaving Egypt, there is still work to be done to get to the Promised Land.
The narrative of the Exodus, from slavery to redemption, links the Jewish and African-American communities. Well we know that Dr. King’s work is not yet complete, that redemption is not yet at hand. Even as we celebrate our freedom, we pledge to continue the journey to the Promised Land. Even as we mark the death of Dr. King, we pledge to continue his work until, as the prophet Amos proclaimed, “Justice shall roll down like water, righteousness like a mighty stream.”
A bonus: James Taylor wrote a song about Dr. King called “Shed a Little Light.” A few years ago, a Jewish a cappella group, The Maccabeats, and an African American a cappella group, Naturally 7, released a fantastic version of the song. Watch it here and be inspired!