The Civil Rights Movement is one of the most compelling chapters of American history. State and federal governments were right to set aside a holiday to celebrate its achievements – and without a doubt, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the movement’s most eloquent and charismatic spokesman. His tragic death made him a martyr to the cause of justice. And yet, every Martin Luther King Day, I find myself resisting this exclusive focus on Dr. King, who has come to represent the sum total of the movement for most Americans.
This idea struck me most recently when I was attending a presentation by a group of students from McComb, Mississippi, who were taking part in a special locally-focused civil rights course. The two high school students noted that while they had heard of Martin Luther King, they had no idea of the civil rights history of their own town. Prior to the class, they had never heard of Herbert Lee, a leader of the McComb black community and fighter for civil rights, who was murdered by a state legislator in 1961. As part of the course, these students have interviewed several community members who played a role in the local movement.
These students have done tremendous work uncovering the civil rights history of their own community. This exciting McComb Legacy Project shows that all of our communities have an important civil rights history that needs to be preserved and understood. Our heroes are not just carved into monuments in Washington. They still walk the streets of our communities.
The most important lesson of the movement is how regular people came together to change this country. The best book about the Mississippi movement, Local People, by John Dittmer, sums up this idea in its very title. I fear that by focusing exclusively on the life and achievements of one great leader, we lose sight of the idea that we all have the power to change the world.
It’s true. We do have the collective power to change the world. It happened right here, during the Civil Rights Movement.
So today, challenge yourself to learn something about other great leaders like Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Aaron Henry, Fred Shuttlesworth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many more. Even better, look into the civil rights history of your own community (be it north, south, east, or west). I am sure you will uncover local heroes who helped ensure the continuation of Dr. King’s dream.
Do you have family or community members who fought for civil rights? How will you honor this legacy?
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is two weeks from today – Monday, January 21, 2013. This year, consider celebrating Dr. King and his universal legacy in a uniquely Jewish context: by hosting an action-oriented Shabbat Supper on Friday, January 18, and inviting guests to come and honor the civil rights leader, and continue his dream.
The ongoing struggle for racial equity is poignant throughout America, and certainly here in the South. As a Repair The World Fellow, and as a Jewish professional living in the South, I am excited to share this initiative with you. Spearheaded by Repair the World, these Shabbat Suppers will explore one of the defining civil rights issues of our time: education inequality.
Repair the World is inviting Jews across the country to host Shabbat Suppers on Friday, January 18th to celebrate the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. King’s life transformed the lives of many across our country. However, his motivation stemmed from his experiences as a young Black man living in the South, the center of some of his toughest battles. My hope is that Jews, particularly Jews living in the South today, will join Repair the World in its effort to commemorate the life and work of a leader who sacrificed so much to ensure that all people in our region, and our country, are seen as equal and treated with dignity and respect.
Repair The World will help everyone who hosts by:
- Giving them the tools to talk about the tough stuff: Repair will send you a toolkit that includes discussion materials, facts on education inequality in America, and tips on how to facilitate a meaningful conversation around the issue.
- Providing swag: Each group that signs up to host will receive Repair the World swag for your guests and a T-shirt for the individual(s) who lead the event.
- Helping invite local interfaith partners: If you so choose, a Repair staff person will work with you to invite partners from different faith and ethnic groups in your neighborhood. These partners will expand your network, and help to deepen the conversation around education inequality. The potential is endless!
Please click on the following link to register and participate: Shabbat Suppers
If you or your congregation host one of these Shabbat Suppers, we would love to hear about it. Please share your stories with us!