Awakening from the Dream: Martin Luther King and the Meaning(s) of a Life

Recently, I was listening to a well-known scholar and Jewish educator interview a famous sportswriter. The scholar was asking the sportswriter to elaborate about baseball and basketball, American Jews’ special relationship with sports in general and baseball in particular. The interviewer asked, again and again, questions about what it meant for Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg to sit out games because of Jewish observances, or what specifically could be at the root of the enduring romance between Jewish Americans and the sport of baseball.

Each time the scholar would pose a question, the sportswriter would tell a story or recount facts and figures but would not really answer the scholar’s questions. One party would try to examine hidden truths; the other party would relate little-known historical details and anecdotes. As a listener, I found myself amused and frustrated by the way these two men kept talking past one another. But then, of course, the Jewish educator should’ve known better. Journalists, including sportswriters, aren’t responsible for conveying lessons; that’s the job of educators and rabbis. Journalists tell stories, recount facts, chronicle history. Understanding what these facts or stories mean is the responsibility of the reader, the listener, or of teachers.

As a rabbi who serves a congregation in an historic Jewish building within a majority Black neighborhood, I spend a fair amount of time (in this column or other writings, in sermons and in classes I teach) teasing out meaning from daily encounters with friends and neighbors. But Beth Am, itself, is also a resource for meaning making. Now that the pandemic is largely in our rearview mirror, we are redoubling our efforts as an anchor and convener.

Monday, May 22 at 7:00 pm, Beth Am will host Awakening from the Dream, a conversation with bestselling author Jonathan Eig. I’m privileged to welcome Bishop Donte Hickman and members of Southern Baptist Church, along with the greater Jewish, Reservoir Hill, and Baltimore communities to our historic sanctuary. In his monumental new book, Eig explores the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The book (I have an advance copy!) benefits from new interviews with those who knew and loved King, as well as recently declassified FBI files revealing a stunning level of surveillance. King comes across as a flawed yet visionary leader whose humanity and sacrifice makes his life’s story even more compelling than the mythological figure who has too often replaced the actual man in casual conversation.

Eig, an active member of his Chicago synagogue who hosts a weekly podcast with his rabbi, was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal and other outlets long before he became a celebrated biographer. The “whats” (well-researched facts and historic details) are presented with accuracy and texture. But, equally importantly, the book invites questions about the purpose and impact of King’s life, spurring the reader to consider why he was so driven, how he endured so much vitriol including constant threats to his life and safety, and what drove him (until the very end) to keep pushing for a more just and equitable America.

Those questions and more will be at issue as Bishop Hickman, a highly respected leader in the Baltimore Black Baptist Church who spoke recently at Governor Wes Moore’s inauguration, engages in conversation with a highly respected chronicler of transformational American leaders. This summer marks 60 years since the March on Washington, but as time marches on some of us may forget that King’s March sought to achieve specific goals: “jobs and freedom.” All these years later, unemployment rates for African Americans remain lower than their white or Asian American counterparts. The US incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any nation on the planet – disproportionately Black and Latino men. Recently, two duly elected Black lawmakers in Tennessee were removed from their posts (only to be reinstated soon after by their constituents) for a breach of decorum. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been rendered toothless by the Supreme Court.

The fight for racial and social justice remains pressing. New possibilities for Black-Jewish partnerships are many. Dr. King’s life and work has never been more relevant. Come and learn how the ever-emerging facts of that storied life can and should inform the work of our own.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore.