Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Prophets: A 50th Anniversary Appreciation

The night before his death on April 4, 1968 an exhausted Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Masonic Temple in Memphis. The night was stormy, tornado warnings had been issued, and the crowd was small in the giant hall. “But it doesn’t matter now…because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” King famously declared in a trembling voice, “And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I have seen the Promised Land. And 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.”

Martin Luther King, JR. reminded the American people with his unforgettable last words that though a man may die, a dream does not. And it is no happenstance that King was referencing Moses, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. Time and again King drew inspiration from the prophets of old.

In his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963) King wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns…so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”

In his iconic I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington of the same year King quotes the prophet Amos: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (5:24),” and Isaiah: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” (40:4-5).

Perhaps his most stirring words about the prophets were spoken by King at an address to the Synagogue Council of America on December 5, 1966:“When silence threatens to take the power of decision out of our hands”, King began, “…one looks into history for the courage to speak even in an unpopular cause. Looming as ethical giants are those extraordinary of men, the Hebrew prophets. They did not believe that conscience is a still, small voice. They believed that conscience thunders or it does not speak at all. They were articulate, passionate, and fearless, attacking injustice and corruption whether the guilty be kings or their own unrepentant people. Without physical protection, scornful of risks evoked by their unpopular messages, they went among the people with no shield other than truth.”

King stirringly concludes: “Today we particularly need the Hebrew prophets because they taught that to love God was to love justice; that each human being has an inescapable obligation to denounce evil where he sees it and to defy a ruler who commands him to break the covenant. The Hebrew prophets are needed today because decent people must be imbued with the courage to speak the truth, to realize that silence may temporarily preserve status or security but to live with a lie is a gross affront to God. The Hebrew prophets are needed today because we need their flaming courage; we need them because the thunder of their fearless voices is the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and clamor of war….”

In a recent interview historian Taylor Branch describes the influence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets (1963) on King, noting, “He became like a driven Old Testament prophet….[King and] all those guys used to carry around Heschel’s book. They really identified with the prophets.” Branch adds that “Heschel’s seminal study of the prophets…gained the eager devotion of King and his fellow pastors.” Many of us are familiar with the iconic picture of Heschel and King marching together in Selma, and Heschel’s remark that “I felt like my feet were praying”.

Fifty years after his untimely death the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspires and challenges us anew. His devotion to prophetic ideals bids us in the Jewish community to rediscover our outspoken biblical forbears and their quest for justice. How can we walk the prophetic path in these troubled times? How can we speak truth to power? How can we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly”? For as Hillel said, “But leave it to Israel; if they are not prophets, yet they are the children of prophets.”

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz is director of The Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia, and serves Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.