Fifty years ago on this date, I woke to the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. The killing happened the evening before, but I hadn’t heard about it until my roommate’s clock radio came on at seven a.m.
She had gone to the bathroom — she always managed to get up before her alarm — so I rushed down there to tell her. I can’t quite channel all the emotions I felt that day, but I know I was stunned, perhaps even numb.
I went to biology class, but the professor had canceled it, leaving us a note on the blackboard suggesting that we spend our time thinking about what had happened.
Then I got on a bus to go visit my parents over spring break. The bus was packed, and several people were standing in the aisles, including an African American man wearing his Army uniform. His name badge said “Moore.”
I think we exchanged a few words about the sorrows of the day. I know I thought about his name and wondered if we might be related. I didn’t ask. Even then I knew that if we were related, it would say something ugly about my family history.
On Tuesday I had the privilege of attending a community “Unity Seder” at Temple Sinai here in Oakland. One of the things we did in that celebration of the Jews escaping from slavery and oppression was to share family history of such experiences.
I felt at a loss. Certainly my ancestors had their ups and downs, but any significant suffering based on systematic oppression is far in my past. I did mention my grandmother’s grandfather, who immigrated from Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and who may well have done so because of either famine or political action.
The oppression in Ireland was real and vicious, but even so, listening to the stories of others I was much more struck by how privileged my family history has been. We aren’t rich, but we’ve been comfortable for generations.
Most of my ancestors came to the U.S. before the American Revolution. Both sides ended up in Texas not long after the Texas Revolution. My family history tracks a lot of American history, for good and ill.
It comes to me now that perhaps I should have shared my thoughts on seeing that soldier named Moore on the day after Dr. King was killed, should perhaps have discussed my awareness that some of my family might have had more in common with Pharaoh (or more likely his overseers) than with the Jews who escaped him.
I’m sure if I traced my family history back far enough I could find serious oppression. (It’s more probable my ancestors were serfs than kings or nobles.) My sister got a DNA analysis showing we have some Scandinavian ancestry and, given that the ancestors we know about are primarily from Ireland, Scotland, and England, that suggests that some of our people might have been victims of Viking raids.
However, even if I discovered facts to support that history, it has no emotional reality for me. It would be interesting, but it wouldn’t be the same as being an African American whose ancestors came to this country in a slave ship and whose family has experienced the ongoing racism that still infects this country. It wouldn’t be the same as the awareness that Native Americans have of what changed on this continent when it was colonized by Europeans.
The Hagaddah we used at the Seder — put together by Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin — included some inspirational quotes. I particularly liked this one from Abraham Joshua Heschel:
In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.
I’ve seen several essays on Dr. King on this anniversary of his murder. I particularly liked one in The New York Times by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. These words in particular spoke to me
We owe it to Dr. King — and to our children and grandchildren — to commemorate the man in full: a radical, ecumenical, antiwar, pro-immigrant and scholarly champion of the poor who spent much more time marching and going to jail for liberation and justice than he ever spent dreaming about it.
I had one other thought at Seder. I wondered what we would have done, the ecumenical crowd — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists — gathered there, if the Prophet Elijah had come in our door guised as one of the homeless people who ask for money in the neighborhood.
If others in the room were feeling emotional charge that I felt, I’m pretty sure we would have fed the person that night. It would be nice if we could channel some of that feeling into helping people who need it on other nights of the year.