Lift Up the Voices of the Unheard

“Lift up voices and let freedom from oppression ring!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – Dr. Marin Luther King Jr.

MLK’s “I Have A Dream Speech” is his most famous and has made a lasting impression on me. I don’t know exactly how old I was when I first heard this speech. I was in elementary school, probably third or fourth grade. Upon hearing these words, I felt immediately embraced by Dr. King and included in his vision. With one phrase, he made me feel heard, “Jews and Gentiles.”

I felt like an outsider as a Jew growing up in Austin, Texas in the 1980s. My parents were New York transplants and we kept kosher at home. This alone was enough to label me as “other” in my school. In third grade, we had to give a report on where our family came from. Like many Ashkenazi Jews my family came from Eastern Europe along the shifting borders of Poland and Russia. It felt easier to say that my family came from Russia and give a report on Russia. Upon hearing my report, my teacher gave me an evil look (OK, I was in third grade remember and this was during the Cold War) and said, “Russia is our enemy.” To which I understood her to mean that my family was “the enemy” and should not be allowed to be in the U.S. I felt unheard and unwelcome. When I listened to Dr. King’s speech, I knew he understood what I was going through. He knew that American needed to welcome and lift up the voices of the unheard, and he included me, a Jew, in his vision. That felt tremendous. He made my identity and personhood matter. He made me feel a part of the larger American world when my teacher discounted me.

This piece of learning from my childhood has made me aware of the many voices that are still unheard in our society. I have been moved by the recent #blacklivesmatter movement because this movement is all about lifting up the unheard. Social media makes it much easier to get messages into the public consciousness. Tweeting about Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and the countless others that have been killed by police raises them up. As a society we are being forced to look at ourselves in new ways.

Dr. King’s vision has yet to be fulfilled. Freedom is still not ringing for African Americans in America. The countless stories of black people killed by police are testament to this fact. To build on Dr. King’s legacy, we must hear the stories from families who have lost loved ones to unjust killings, incarcerations, and a system that is rigged against them. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, “Between the World and Me” and his articles in The Atlantic magazine should be required reading in schools across America. The only way we will change our society is by acknowledging the past, giving voice to the unheard living today, and then changing our policies, actions, and culture to make a more just society for the future.

READ: Ta-Nehisi Coates and King Solomon, Telling It Like It Is

To do this successfully, we will need to bring many voices to the table. Jews, Gentiles Catholics, Protestants, Black, White, Conservative and Liberal will all have to sit together. We will all have to listen to each other’s personal stories. We will have to listen to the truth in each other’s lived experiences. Creating a free society for all is not easy. America as a country has been trying to work towards this goal for hundreds of years. We are not there yet. But on this day when we remember Dr. King, I believe that we must keep striving towards this goal.

Everyone should have the power to lift up their voices and say: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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