Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Jerusalem

Dr. King is often remembered by his famous speech, “I have a dream…” Jerusalem is a city built by dreamers.

Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr. on December 7, 1965. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr. on December 7, 1965.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.... The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Chicago, January 14, 1963, Conference on Religion and Race sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews
Martin Luther King Street in Jerusalem leads up to the Yehuda Amicahi Circle, where the inscription reads: “Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.” Jerusalem: a city where the streets are named for leaders and visionaries who dreamed the dream.
Shortly after the Supreme Court ended segregation in the public schools (Brown vs. Board of Education 1954) our school in Denver, Colorado was integrated. That was the official step, however, the people in our school didn’t lose their prejudices. In the fall of 1956, seven African American children were bused in from the Air Force base. Before those children came into our Jr. High school, the teacher instructed the class, “I know black children, keep a close watch on your things. They will even steal your shoes, and they complain about everything. Don’t pay attention to them, and no hitting. “
Sadly, I didn’t have the courage to say to her, “But my father has a laundry. Everyone who works there is an African-America and they never steal our shoes. When my father was in the hospital for a month, they took over the business and the money in the cash register.”
Seven years went by. I was finishing up my BA degree by student-teaching in a Jr. High School in Arvada, Colorado. Arvada sits on the edge of the city of Denver. Like the suburbia which was being built all over America in the 1950’s, the town was a middle-class place people came home to after working in Denver.
I fought the Revolutionary War, signed the Declaration of Independence and read the Constitution focusing on the 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights. Eventually, in early February, we started the Civil War.
From the battles we went on to Lincoln’s assassination which brought them out of their slumber. They combined the assassinations of JFK with Lincoln, but mainly class discussion brought up various conspiracies. Toward the end of February, we got to the Reconstruction Era in the South. I tried to point out to my students that the descendants of the slaves, though technically free, were still not free. This was a difficult concept for these students as they had no contact with African Americans in their neighborhoods. Still, I talked about how Martin Luther King was leading the Civil Rights movement in the South. I brought pictures from newspapers about marches and voter registration drives. I told them of the violence that Rev. King faced every day.
Before spring vacation, the chairman of our department called me in. “Mr. Geller”, she said, “I heard you were teaching about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Blacks down South. What has that to do with our school?” I explained that even after Reconstruction the black slaves were not truly free, not like us. And I said, “If Reconstruction was going to be relevant, it had to connect with the struggle for Civil Rights in the South which was gaining more and more attention in the newspapers. In truth, Colorado was not an officially segregated place, but, like most of America, back then, the clear majority of African- American students were not integrated into the public schools.
“Now you stop that right now, “she said. “And I’ll tell you, straight away, before you start teaching about what is wrong with America, “you people” ought to clean up your own backyard first.” I was the first Jewish teacher probably even the first Jew. (I wonder if I was the last.) I knew what she meant when she said, “you people.” The “you people” she referred to were “My People” and they played a very large role in cleaning up America’s front and Back Yard
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around the time of Rev. King’s birthday, January 15. Dr. King is often remembered by his famous speech, “I have a dream…” Jerusalem is a city built by dreamers. As I pointed out in the beginning, Martin Luther King Street and the memorial to the poet Yehuda Amichai come together in Jerusalem. As the anniversary approaches, I imagine the poet Yehuda Amichai saying, “you and your dreams are welcome here.” Sometimes, our dreams come true.