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Dr. Martin Luther King Day, Rainbow Push Chicago Breakfast, Keynote Address

by Rabbi Samuel Gordon

January 20, 2020

I ask you to imagine for a moment that Dr. King is with us this morning. It is not so impossible a thought. He would have been 91. Now imagine the breakfast is over, and Dr. King goes upstairs out the front door of this hotel and walks onto Wacker Drive. If he looks to the north, he sees the Apple Store and all of Michigan Avenue sparkling behind it. He looks to the west and sees the new Riverwalk leading out to Wolf Point with the shimmering skyscrapers of offices and residences full of life. If he were to walk down Wacker to the corner of Michigan, he could look south and see Millennium Park and all the vibrancy of Michigan Avenue leading as far as McCormick Place.

I imagine that Dr. King would not recognize this city and the last fifty years of changes that have revitalized and transformed parts of the Chicago he once knew. This is a very different city that has prospered, been transformed, and renewed. I would think that these changes would have been unimaginable to Dr. King!

BUT, here is the flip side, the dark side: if he were to return to his old neighborhoods where he did his greatest work, the south side and the west side of this city, he would immediately recognize that Chicago. That Chicago has not been transformed. If anything, it is worse today than it was fifty-five years ago. But I don’t think he would be surprised. He recognized the great entrenched disparities of American society.

He spoke of skyscrapers among slums and jet planes soaring over ghettos. Dr. King called out the great dangers of economic disparity in his time, and we know that those gaps and gulfs have become all the greater in these fifty plus years.

In his Nobel Prize speech, he said: “The problem of poverty…is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves.” In this particularly rich nation, perhaps the richest, Dr. King would recognize a growing crisis both of economics and of morality.

He continued to say; “The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation.”

But since compassion cannot be monetized, too much of our society ascribes no value to it.

Dr. King had a radical and far-reaching criticism of America. He knew that American society had deep endemic problems that applied everywhere in this land. There are those who would like to present us with a sanitized and moderate version of Dr. King’s work and philosophy, but that is a great disservice to his passionate and critical analysis of our society.

He came to Chicago to do battle against widespread school segregation. He took on the realtors and bankers who divided this city by race. He fought those in political power for equal rights and opportunities, and he embraced nonviolence as an activist committed to changing American society. He believed in a guaranteed middle-class income for all as a way to eradicate poverty in this wealthy nation.

Dr. King was not a naïve innocent. He understood the need to use power and influence, but he said:

When I talk about power and the need for power, I’m talking in terms of the need for power to bring about the political and economic changes necessary to make the good life a reality. I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.

Most radical of all, he was ready to sacrifice himself for those greater goals. He said:

I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way because I heard a voice saying, ‘Do something for others.’

It is far too easy for us sitting here to celebrate some extraordinary accomplishments. Once again, look at this city itself. Chicago is prosperous with the new urbanization and corporate headquarters and high tech firms providing new jobs and opportunities within walking distance of where we sit this morning. Politically we have come a very long way. We are honored that Mayor Lori Lightfoot is here, and she is the heir to Mayor Harold Washington. Cook County Board President, Toni Preckwinkle, is also present. States Attorney Kim Foxx joins us as well. This remarkable city produced Barack Obama. All of those victories would have been beyond the imagination of Dr. King. But those accomplishments cannot lead us to complacency or passivity.

Much has been achieved, but Dr. King’s greatest concerns have not been met. We are living in a nation that is more divided than ever, and where the battles that we thought we had won are now being overturned on a daily basis. The hard-won victories of the Civil Rights era are under continual attack. Voting Rights are threatened by the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression, intimidation, and manipulation. Our public schools are being decimated by a Department of Education that undermines the values of universal and equal education. The Department of Housing and Urban Development seeks to raise the rent on four million low-income households that receive federal rental assistance. The Department of Agriculture has proposed toughening access to food stamps and free school meals. Nearly three million people would lose food stamps and one million children would lose automatic eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals.

The story is told of a visit Dr. King made to a small rural elementary school in the Deep South. As he stepped into the classroom he saw the teacher take a few apples and a handful of nuts out of a bag. She cut each apple into quarters and gave each child a slice of the fruit and a few nuts. Dr. King realized that, at least for some of those children, this might be their only meal. He quickly left the classroom and went outside so the children would not see him crying. As I quoted him above: “Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation.” What happens to America when we lose our compassion?

On April 4, 1967, a year before his death, Dr. King delivered the most politically charged speech of his life at Riverside Church in Manhattan. The New York Times called it “A blistering attack on the government’s conduct of the Vietnam War.” He condemned the military adventurism of his time. And today we fear that bombastic posturing and impulsive, provocative acts of belligerence may bring us into new and more dangerous conflicts.

Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Misogyny, Xenophobia, hatred of LGBTQ people were not defeated in the years since Dr. King’s assassination. The White Supremacists who are inheritors of Gage Park, Marquette Park, and Cicero and of Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis and elsewhere are still with us. When nine African American church-goers were massacred at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, we had a president who led this nation in the singing of “Amazing Grace” in order to heal our wounds. No such response followed the murderous Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA. The Klan, neo-Nazis, and White Supremacists have been given new permission to emerge from beneath their rocks by a sulfurous rhetoric of hate and disunity emanating from the top political office of our nation.

So, in Dr. King’s words, “Where Do We Go From Here?” The founding motto of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “To save the soul of America.” And that is what Dr. King would ask us to do in his name. He would want us to organize, register, and get out the vote. He would want us to fight the battles against those who would turn the clock back and overturn the moral victories and achievements that were won.

You may wonder, what is a white Rabbi from the suburbs doing addressing all of you on this day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King? Let me suggest an answer of sorts. Each week, Jews read the lessons from the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Torah is read in a cycle, beginning in Genesis and concluding with the Book of Deuteronomy. As it happens, we have just begun to read the Book of Exodus, starting with the story of enslavement in Egypt and liberation and freedom under the leadership of Moses. Thirty-six times in the Torah we are commanded to: “Never forget that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt. Always remember that you were strangers and outcasts in a strange land.”

The command to always remember is followed with a “Therefore.” But the Hebrew Bible never says, therefore, hate the Egyptians. Rather we are never to forget what it felt to be slaves, outcasts, and strangers so that we would know the plight of the slave, and thus always treat the stranger in our land as a native, defend the rights of the outcast, and fight for the rights of the oppressed.

Those teachings drew Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Allard Lowenstein, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, Rabbi Bob Marx of Chicago, and so many others to follow Dr. King and to march with him, arm in arm. Many shared jail cells with him in Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, and elsewhere. A shared devotion to equality drew Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney together in their martyrdom. Dr. King asked Rabbi Joachim Prinz to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with him at the March on Washington and speak from his experience as the Rabbi of Berlin at the time of the rise of Nazism. Today, we must maintain that shared commitment to fight racism and anti-Semitism together.

The coalition of Blacks and Jews has not only been about Jews supporting Blacks but, rather, has been a source of mutual comfort and support. In October of 2018, eleven Jewish worshippers were slaughtered by a White supremacist at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I grew up in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, and Tree of Life was where my parents were married and was the spiritual home of my grandparents and much of my family. Following that horrific event, there was an interfaith worship gathering at my synagogue in Wilmette. Our congregation was joined by the local clergy and members of the Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i communities. Most importantly, Reverend Jackson also joined us that night, without fanfare and with humility, as a sign of his solidarity and friendship. That night Reverend Jackson spoke movingly of our joint history, listing some of the same names I mentioned above. I will be forever grateful for his participation that evening and for his continued encouragement, inspiration, and friendship.

Let us now imagine what Dr. King might find in a visit to Chicago fifty years from now. In these next fifty years, can we build a city in which all the neighborhoods share in the downtown’s prosperity? Will economic opportunity be available to all of its residents? Working together, we can share a vision of Chicago that is achievable if we but rededicate ourselves to carrying Dr. King’s struggle on behalf of all who are denied their dignity as human beings equally created in the image of God.

In February, Mayor Lightfoot will be hosting a summit on reducing poverty in the City of Chicago. This is a key priority of the Lightfoot Administration. It is intended to shine a spotlight on the issue of poverty in Chicago and will launch a new coalition that hopes to inspire, activate, and work together to alleviate poverty in Chicago and ultimately serve as a model for our nation.

So it is up to all of us, both individually and collectively, to continue this fight. We have much work to do to make real the visionary dream of Dr. King. But we cannot give up, even in the face of great opposition. Let us always remember that the challenges ahead of us are not nearly as powerful as the forces behind us. In this city and far beyond, we honor Dr. King by joining together to build a world of justice, equality, and peace.

Let me conclude with these words of Dr. King:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

Fri, February 21 2020 26 Sh'vat 5780