This past weekend, as I gathered for Passover seders, first with my family and friends, and then with my congregation, I could not help but notice that these sacred occasions coincided with the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, having traveled to Memphis to support striking African American city sanitation workers.
It is hard not to think of King’s killing without thinking of his final speech, delivered the night before at the Mason Temple. For King, the story of the Exodus which we tell at Passover had tremendous power; the ancient story of the liberation of Israelite slaves was an important narrative informing the civil rights movement he led.
In this sadly prescient speech, King evokes the image of Moses viewing the Promised Land after having led the Israelites for so many years. In the Torah, we learn that Moses will not make it into the Land, he is destined to die on the eastern side of the Jordan River. King in his speech says, “And [God’s] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
While we tend to remember that last part of the speech, the earlier part of his words are quite important as well. Towards the beginning of his remarks, King give a brief overview of history:
And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt, and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather, across the Red Sea, through the wilderness, on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.