A blog by Barry Edelson

A Debt of Gratitude

Lessons I Learned from Martin Luther King, Jr

I was a small child when the events of Selma and Montgomery were unfolding in the 1960s. But the famous images were replayed again and again on television throughout my childhood, and they left an indelible impression on me. To this day, whenever I see the film of King's "I Have a Dream" speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I struggle to hold back tears. I have often thought about why these particular words, though obviously compelling, should have such an emotional effect on me. And I have come to realize that this remarkable speech was not merely a defining moment in our history, but a shaping force in my own life.

King taught me, almost by himself, the most fundamental lesson about the human race: that we are one people. I honestly don't know where else that lesson could have come from. There was little in my own background or early education that would have naturally led me to feel any special affinity for the plight of African Americans. I was taught to believe in our constitutional rights, and I certainly wasn't taught to hurt anyone, but neither was I taught to extend myself to help anyone, least of all anyone outside the sphere of national and religious loyalty in which I was raised. In my own attitude towards humanity, Martin Luther King changed everything.

King also taught me one of the first moral lessons of my life. He did not argue that segregation had to end because it was unfair. Of course it was unfair, but life cannot be made fair. We simply do not have that in our power. What King argued was that segregation had to end because it was immoral. He taught us that decent people had a moral obligation to erase from their hearts the underlying hatred that made segregation possible. And through this particular lesson he opened my eyes to the profound issues of good and evil in this world, and made me understand that a life defined by moral principles is the only life worthy of human dignity.

A life defined by
moral principles is the
only life worthy
of human dignity.

Because I was very young during the high water mark of the civil rights movement, I may have a natural tendency to romanticize and simplify it, to overlook its subtleties and complexities. But it taught me that some moral principles are too important ever to be compromised, and that foremost among those principles is that we are all equal in our humanity. Our tribal divisions are nothing more than accidents of history and geography. If there is anything I know with certainty in this world, it is this: more evil has been perpetrated to keep us separated from one another, and to perpetutate the distinctions of race, class and faith, than in any other cause. And no one can devote himself to a greater cause than to overcome and eradicate those distinctions.

Martin Luther King was that prophet who comes along every so often to bring clarity to confusion, to make us uncomfortable with our prejudices, and to make us ashamed to stand idly by while evil is being done. When I witnessed those terrifying scenes from Alabama and Mississippi, even though I first saw them on film several years after they had occurred, ashamed is exactly how I felt—not ashamed to be an American, as many others seemed to feel at the time; not ashamed to be white, while black Americans were being so cruelly mistreated; not ashamed to be a Jew, isolated in the security of my own customs while the world outside went mad with hatred and violence. I felt, for the first time in my young life, ashamed simply to be a human being, to see with my own eyes that man was capable of such unspeakable inhumanity to his fellow man.

In time, my shame enabled me to repent of my own selfishness and to shed, I hope, my own prejudices. That is the debt of gratitude I owe, in greatest measure, to Martin Luther King, and I feel privileged and lucky to have lived, ever so briefly, in his time.

I hope we do not have to wait too long for another such prophet to arise, a prophet like Martin Luther King who can revive our sense of shame in the face of the tragedies that still surrounds us: shame that millions of young lives in every generation are still lost to prisons and drugs, to hails of bullets and barriers of hatred, shame that we are smug and self-righteous in our personal comfort and prosperity. If we are as good as our stated convictions, we ought not to need another prophet to shame us into bearing the moral responsibilities of our common humanity.

Written and delivered as a speech, November 1998
Revised and posted on Martin Luther King Day, January 19, 2009

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