On March 25, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills and spoke before the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. The conversation between King and the rabbis is remarkable for so many reasons, including of course that this historic meeting occurred only ten (10) days before King’s assassination in Memphis. In reading the transcript of the proceeding most recently, however, I am struck by Dr. King’s response to one rabbi’s question regarding how the members of the assembly could assist King in achieving social justice.
King responded by indicating that there were concrete steps that the rabbis could take subsequent to the assembly. King then spent a few minutes explaining his vision for a march on Washington to be held in May, 1968 and requested financial support and offers to host the thousands of residents from Marks, Mississippi who would be traveling to Washington to speak about their condition of abject poverty and unequal access to opportunity.
King never lived to see this march, although Robert Abernathy, who had succeeded Dr. King as leader of the SCLC, decided to fulfill the dream of the slain civil rights leader. Thousands of people converged on the capital and lived in tents on the National Mall in what was known as “Resurrection City.” Many commentators who covered the march include in their reporting their observations of the consistent rain and mud puddles that marked the march during May and June. While camping out in mud puddles on the mall, moreover, the residents of Resurrection City sadly learned that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated.
Assessments of the gains made during this moment in history are mixed, at best, with commentators suggesting that the march may not have created much movement in stemming the subsequent rising tide of millions born into poverty. Many of the leaders and participants wistfully recalled, furthermore, the charisma of King, assessing a loss of opportunity following King’s death, and raising questions how the movement might ever achieve its goals.
Like the powerful national and personal narrative of Dr.
King, so many narratives begun in our own lives will only bear completion, if
at all, in the lives of our successors. This is because the path to achieving
nearly impossible goals-peace or equality of opportunity, for example-is often
unclear and there are more questions about how to find the road than answers
how to navigate it once the destination is clear. Yet, raising the critical question of what is
required of us-personally and nationally-is actually the very beginning of
achievement, and we are fortunate if we can then start to articulate answers to
our questions and act upon our responses.
Many of the great questions formulated during
the course of Dr. King’s short lifetime continue to remain unanswered today,
particularly as they relate to matters of national community, including our
response to poverty and lack of access to justice-matters that are especially
precious to our law center. Let us find inspiration in Dr. King’s life and
work. Let us resolve, further, to utter the beginning of an answer to the
profound questions, first raised by Dr. King, that continue to resonate in our