April 4 is one of the blazing dates of my life, marked in blood and fire, in despair and prophecy and perseverance.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. The week that followed was a week of rebellious uprising; a week of the armed occupation of my neighborhood and my city — the nation’s capital — by the US Army under orders from the President; a week that culminated with the coming of Passover. That week made for a profound turning in my life.
What is the truth of April? We learn it from the Passover Haggadah (always read on the Full Moon in late March or early April), from Walt Whitman and from T.S. Eliot and from Dr. King on the April evening before he was killed - –
In every generation
there is a pyramid of top-down power
that endangers us all.
In every generation
all of us
must see that we ourselves,
not our forebears only —
on the path
WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west, 5
And thought of him I love.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
I just want
to do God’s will.
And He’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.
On April 4, 1969, among hundreds of Jews and Christians, Blacks and whites, I celebrated the transgressive Passover Seder, the Freedom Seder that celebrated new liberation struggles alongside the archetypal struggle of ancient Israelites against slavery to Pharaoh. I had written the Freedom Seder to suffer, absorb, and transcend the agony of that week in 1968. Dr. King’s death and what followed had given me a new birth as a Jew transformed by the prophetic depth of our tradition.
Not till later did I realize that on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King had given his most profound, most troubling, most prophetic speech. It is often described as setting forth his opposition to the Vietnam War – and it does. But notice that its title and its text look beyond Vietnam. It stands in the great tradition of the Prophets, drawing on the suffering of a single historical moment to speak eternal truths.
The entire text of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech is on our website at https://theshalomcenter.org/node/71
Ten days before Dr. King was killed, his friend and co-worker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel introduced him to a gathering of rabbis with these words: “Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King, Jr. is a voice, a vision and a way. The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
Dr. King was murdered as he spoke out for the most despised among us: Black, poor, and even worse –- smelly. The garbage workers of Memphis. Treated as if their work made them pariahs, not the heroes of the city whose life they made sustainable.
And he was killed as he worked to shape a coalition of the poor of all colors and cultures to demand root changes in American society.
Was his murder America’s answer to the question Rabbi Heschel posed? Is he dead and with him the America he strove to give new life?
Or will we, all of us who hear the Calling of the Spirit, give a new birth in this generation to freedom, to justice, to peace, to the healing of our wounded planet?
You Who are the Breath of life,
You Who breathe life into what has seemed already dead —
Breathe life into our wounded Earth,
Breathe life into our breath, our words,
To move and change our country and our communities —
That we may heal the wounds of Earth.