Celebrating King's legacy

It’s time to think deeply about racism and its roots—to think about what it would take to make a meaningful restitution to those affected by slavery

BY Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

January 25 2006 12:00 AM ET

With the passing
of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many people are looking
for meaningful ways to honor his legacy. King spent his
life’s energy—and ultimately gave his
life—working towards building a country that valued
and treated all men and women equally. He believed in a
democracy that worked for all Americans in spirit and
in deed.

We may remember
best King’s “I Have a Dream” address to
a quarter of a million people on the Mall in
Washington, D.C. Or his role in the nonviolent
Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955. His work towards
ending racial segregation in the South sparked our
country’s civil rights movement. However, King
understood deeply not only the racial inequalities in
the United States but also the underpinning of economic
injustice that kept African-Americans from full and fair
participation in society. He understood how the legacy
of slavery led to a “debilitating and grinding
poverty [that] chain[ed] [African-Americans] to the lowest
rung of the economic ladder,” as he stated in his
acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace
Prize.

It is impossible
to untangle the twin serpents of racism and economic
injustice. As the rabbi of the one of the country’s
oldest synagogues devoted to serving lesbian, gay,
bisexual, and transgender people, I have a unique
perspective on King’s legacy. I believe a Judaism
that is not concerned and actively involved in the
important social justice issues of the day is a
Judaism that is ultimately bankrupt.

Ten days before
he was assassinated, King was introduced to the
Rabbinical Assembly by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi
Heschel called on “every Jew to hearken to
[King’s] voice, to share his vision, [and] to
follow his way.”

How can we best
honor King’s legacy today and continue to repair the
wrongs of racism? Sometimes as a community we have to
take the steps of atonement, apology, and restitution.
We are familiar with one form of restitution: German
reparations to the Jewish people for the criminal acts
perpetrated in the 1930s and 1940s during the Holocaust.
Nobody said that reparations would make things even,
but we felt that Germany must do more than make an
apology. And apology felt empty. There had to be some
kind of restitution.

There have been
other national examples of public apology and financial
restitution to exploited peoples. The United States paid
reparations—albeit meager—for the horrendous
and morally unjustifiable internment of
Japanese-Americans during World War II. We set up a trust
fund to pay for the health and education of the surviving
residents of our nuclear bomb testing on the Bikini
Atoll. And minimal restitution has been made to Native
Americans in the form of free health care and
education.

The United States
was built on slave labor. We not only financed the
international slave trade, we supported it with our laws and
with our courts. The racism that persists with us to
this day is the legacy of the morally bankrupt
enslavement of millions of Africans and the ensuing
economic oppression of African-Americans.

I want to shine a
light on a poignant bill soon to be reintroduced in
Congress. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, the congressman who
introduced the bill every year for 15 years until it
was passed to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a
holiday, will shortly reintroduced a bill called H.R.
40. The number of the bill reminds us of the unkept promise,
the so-called restitution of forty acres and a mule
guaranteed to every freed slave. H.R. 40 is an
extremely modest bill. It calls for the establishment
of a commission—not to determine what reparations or
restitution should be, but simply to study the issue and to
report back to Congress with some recommendations. The
bill has been introduced every year since 1989 but has
never gotten out of committee.

To honor
King’s legacy, we should demand an examination of the
impact of slavery. Support for H.R. 40 is long
overdue. It’s time to think deeply about racism
and its roots, to think about what it would take to make
meaningful restitution. As a nation we must support H.R. 40
and devote some careful consideration to this issue.
Unless we sit down with wise leaders to think through
this issue and come up with solutions, the legacy of
slavery will continue to live in our society.

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was adapted from Rabbi
Sharon Kleinbaum’s sermon “Lift
Every Voice and Sing: Communal Teshuvah, a Jewish Voice
for Reparations,” recently published in

Listening for the Oboe, a collection of
Kleinbaum’s writings from her first 10 years as
spiritual leader of New York City’s
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.
 

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