Commentary: Drawing on the wisdom of two Martins in troubled times

We are living through a deeply fractured moment in the history of our nation. Our political and social compact sometimes seems to be at risk of tearing apart. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is watching developments in our country and wondering if the light is going out for democracy in America.

As an antidote to the rising tension, wisdom suggests that we should look to strategies that have worked in the past. On these matters there are no better sources than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and some of the sources he drew upon in his effort to help our nation overcome an earlier era of division and violence.

At a time when African Americans endured harsh segregation and second-rate citizenship in the South, Dr. King convinced his followers to protest in a peaceful manner. Why? As Rev. King explained in his moving and profound “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” it was his intention to use large-scale, nonviolent protest to force changes in laws and status, in order to attain the equality promised by our Constitution. He argued that displaying dignity and forbearance would make it more likely that watching Americans would be able to see African Americans in the South as dignified human beings, fully deserving of the basic respect our culture affords ordinary adults.

And it worked. The sight of men, women and even children marching with dignity and conviction, sitting at lunch counters, demanding respect, did what violence could never do. Hearts, minds and, eventually, laws changed.

In the letter, Rev. King famously cited the work of Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian who at Hitler’s rise had fled Germany for Jerusalem, where he wrote, among other things, on how Jews and Arabs might live in peace. Buber and King knew each other’s work, and had worked together on civil rights issues.

In his iconic book, “I and Thou,” Buber argued that people must regard others as fully human individuals, rather than dismiss them as mere members of some group, which leads to “relegating persons to the status of things.”

That insight, simple as it sounds, makes segregation unthinkable. It makes slavery based on race impossible, a fact worth considering in our beloved Charleston, the port into which an estimated 70% of African men and women, relegated to the status of mere slaves, entered this country.

Regarding each other as individuals endowed with human dignity is what makes it possible for people of different backgrounds to have meaningful human interaction. It forces us to see character, intellect, heart, action — not color. Arguably, this insight shared by the two Martins can be credited with electing a black president in America 45 years later as well as our nation’s first female African American vice president.

Martin Luther King became, in his untimely death, a national hero for teaching a generation how to solve a deep and terrible problem by using the best parts of our culture: our commitment to individual liberty, equality under the law and respect for the inalienable rights of individuals. These are universal values, which undergird solid, free societies in which equality is possible.

The entire world is watching how we as Americans choose to resolve the divisions that we face today. As Americans split off into factions that are becoming increasingly violent, we would do well to revive the ideas of two great Martins whose inspired ideas are a precious repository of wisdom in troubled times.

Rabbi Elisha Paul is the head of school at Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston. Matthew Daniels, J.D., Ph.D., is the founder of Good of All, an international human rights education organization.


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