Monday, January 19, 2009

On Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th Birthday

Today the U.S. observes the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated when he was 39 years old. He would have been 80 years old on January 15th. The moral conscience of our nation.

Can you imagine what the world would be like if MLK had lived to be 80 years old?

Would it have taken until 2009 for the U.S. to elect its first black president?

Would the gap between rich and poor continue to be ever dividing?

Would our public schools still be crumbling?

Would the world still be at war with itself?

As Ezra’s Daddy wrote in his weekly op-ed column this week, there is so much we can learn from MLK to apply to our modern world…because he didn’t just speak out for civil rights for black people, he spoke out for a more just world for all of us. MLK’s vision of civil rights meant speaking out wherever there was injustice, be it injustice for workers, for poor people in general. It meant taking on unjust laws and unjust wars. But most important it meant not ever remaining silent:

“I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”

At Shabbat services on Friday night, instead of a full service, our Rabbi played one of MLK’s sermons, "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam," during which MLK spoke the words above. The sermon is as relevant today as it was in 1967 when it was delivered.

And it made me miss my little Ezra Malik all the more.

Ezra chose his middle name, Malik, for several people. First it was for my grandmother Marion, who died young, from multiple sclerosis, just after I was born. But it was also for Martin Luther King, Jr., and also Malcolm X (who took the name Malik when he converted to Islam), the two book ends of black consciousness for the previous generation. Martin, because he reminds us to put aside our differences to repair the world together. Malcolm because he reminds us that to be a black man in the United States is to carry the legacy of 300 years of slavery on one’s shoulders.

Ezra didn’t want to forget where he came from, or where he was going. And since it was a deep commitment to social justice that brought his mommy and daddy together, we (he) envisioned he would pick up that torch.

It was only after Ezra died that we realized that Marion, Martin and Malcolm have in common one thing, they all died young, before their time. Like Ezra.

Because Malcolm X too was assassinated at age 39. Neither Martin nor Malcolm reached their 40th birthdays, the age that Ezra’s daddy is now. And yet they left such a mark on the world.

And Ezra will never reach his 1st birthday, let alone his 40th.

And I can’t help but wonder how not just our lives, but the world would be different, not just if Martin and Malcolm had lived, but if Ezra had lived. Who would Ezra have loved? And what would he have cared about? How would he have left his mark?

Back in September, on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, a teenager who is a member of our congregation gave a passionate speech to hundreds of us, about his work with the Philadelphia Student Union, a student-led education reform group. Both Ezra’s daddy and I began sobbing, and for the same reason…we both imagined that Ezra would have done something like that one day.

I am practicing accepting the idea that Ezra left the mark he was meant to leave, that his life played out as it was meant to be, that he made an impact without having taken a breath.

But it is so very hard to accept. To find meaning when it feels like there is none.

And yet Ezra did make a mark. I know that losing him has made both of us more open, compassionate people. In our life without Ezra, priorities are clear, we are changed forever. And where that change will take us remains unclear, although I can imagine it will allow us to live deeper, more meaningful lives, to have a more significant role in making the world just a bit more whole.

It is all about remaining open to the change, and awake to the journey.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in one of my favorite of his speeches, titled “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution”:

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." And he goes on toward the end to say, "Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.


mj said...

Hi Sarah and David,

I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. But I'm sure that he knew how much he was loved by his parents and appreciated how hard they have been working to make the world a better place for other little boys and girls.

My sincerest condolences for your loss and wishes for many future blessings.


Marsha M. Johnson
(a friend from UPenn Law)

Barbara said...

The idea that I'm practising is that George was here to teach me and his Daddy more about love. To glue us together. To show me the important battles to fight and which to let go. My tiny little lost George is changing ME into who I need to be right now.

So many what if's.


Rach said...

What a beautifully written post. So very moving for many reasons.

I find it terribly upsetting to think about what would have been - we see sisters playing and cry, I see students in uniform and cry amd we see clever young people doing amazing things and we cry.

But even though Alice and Ezra and all the other babies were only here for a brief time, they have made their mark. An indelible mark. Perhaps its not mark that many others will see, but we will see how its changed us. Made us stronger, perhaps better people.


PS- Our daughter Stella has the middle name Rose as I wanted to call her Rosa Parks...

Hope's Mama said...

I hate the not knowing what they would be like. What they would do, which causes they would champion. It is an impossible ache.

Dani819 said...

Ezra has certainly touched my life by introducing me to his wonderful mommy when I needed her the most. I will always be grateful for his time in the world.

aliza said...

beautiful post sarah. i can picture ezra hanging with dr. mlk (and lev), they are wise old souls. wish they were all here alive with us.
our babies mark in this world is profound, and i think yet to be revealed fully. and very different from the way we thought they were going to make their mark...

Sara said...

It is amazing what a mark our babies make, but yes, still so heartbreaking to not have them here to keep making their mark. I'm sorry Ezra is not with you.

Gal aka SuperMommy said...

Beautiful... I thought of you a ton today.

CLC said...

Great post Sarah!
I have the same wonders. But you are right, our children did leave their mark, even if only a few of us know about it.