I picked up Martin Luther King Jr. at Newark Airport. A twenties something assistant rabbi to my father in the last remaining liberal synagogue in town, we had invited him to address our Community Forum. Like the city, the area where the huge oval shaped cathedral-like temple sat, had long since passed the tipping point in its case from being a white middleclass Jewish neighborhood to one largely inhabited by African Americans. King delivered a version of his standard stump speech that evening. In it were hints of the memorable March on Washington address to come when my father would again share the podium with him. Even if the talk had been delivered elsewhere, it was nonetheless a memorable experience for the many assembled. For me the striking moment of that day, was my earlier experience at the airport.
King was already pretty well known to the greater public, but at that time he had yet to achieve the iconic status that all Americans associate with him today. Yet to achieve that is except with, as I learned walking alongside him through airport, his community. I was stunned and totally unprepared for the reaction of the largely black personnel in the terminal. King's arrival was treated with excitement combined with the reverence for an unquestioned superstar. It was clear that many reports of the sighting, the contact, would regale family gatherings throughout the city that night. Being involved in civil rights, I knew a lot about Martin King but not till that moment did I understand the power of his person. It reminded me of a similar experience I had in college when a young John F. Kennedy was the unplanned but undeniable center of gravity in a program where Chief Justice Earl Warren was the principal speaker.
As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. today, I can't help but agonize about the fact that, despite the desperate times in which we live, his kind of voice is totally absent from the scene. King was unique, but he typified a generation of mainstream religious leaders. When the relationship with White America had achieved a kind of pathetic equilibrium largely accepted by the Black power structure, the well educated second generation minister of a traditional congregation, would have none of it. King didn't invent the struggle nor was he its only or even primary leader, but he brought a new passion and took extraordinary risks when he could have had a comfortable and trouble-free pastorate and career. The established churches were not thrilled when he began rocking their stable boats. So, too, much to the consternation of fellow civil rights activists, did he step out in speaking against our involvement in Viet Nam. He had every reason not to add that fight to his plate; every reason except for the moral imperative that ran rampant through the blood in his veins. He died for his willingness to go against the grain.
During the past years we have witnessed continuing violence committed in the name of God. We have seen our troops sent into a questionable battle in which many of lost their lives and countless more, due to severe injury, have permanently lost their way of life. We have seen still uncalculated "collateral damage" obscured in the fog of war and we have been horrified by the horrendous humiliating abuses in Abu Ghraib and other prisons. All this and not a King-like word or figure from the mainstream religious community. To be sure, we've heard moral outrage from Michael Moore and from the likes of Rabbi Arthur Waskow on the Internet, but it's all at the fringe. If a Martin Luther King and his like exists today, I don't know who he is or who they are. Mainstreamers have turned inward when we need them to engage with larger societal problems, turned silent when we need them to talk. I don't know if that will happen, but it's all I can think of on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2005.