An MLK Day meditation

Ahwatukee Professor Neal Lester said his Project Humanities at ASU has a variety of stimulating events planned for the fall.

Once again, the MLK holiday is upon us, and once again we rehearse the words of “I Have a Dream” and reflect on whether we are ever going to realize Dr. King’s dream of social justice and equity.

To commemorate this day and Dr. King’s bold commitment to servant leadership, many coordinate single-day service projects that “give back to the community.” We see vintage footage of King and his Civil Rights activism and attend myriad festivities in local parks with vendors marketing their wares.

The holiday comes and goes, and we go on about our lives with no real commitment to doing anything more than talking about King’s dream of equality, equity, diversity and inclusion.

 Too many wait until this annual holiday to think about and do anything related to King’s legacy.

 Perhaps this holiday can afford a different kind of service and work, perhaps a different kind of personal inventory and personal accountability that demonstrate our deep individual and collective commitment to social justice.

This year, I am doing something different.

While I have over the years attended street festivals and given keynotes and the-importance-of-service talks on day, this year I am participating in a new community partnership program on black and Jewish relations using the PBS documentary “Strange Fruit” (2007) about America’s ugly history of lynching to center that event.

 The profoundly haunting song “Strange Fruit,” while popularized by Billie Holiday, was actually written as social protest by Jewish high school teacher Abel Meeropol in the 1930s.

That we are doing this event on MLK Day provides a bridge between past and present, between blacks and Jewish peoples, and reminds us of the human capacity for empathy in the face of horrific inhumanity.

As I take personal inventory and reflect on Dr. King’s words and actions in the context of this community conversation about the past and present community alliances and tensions between blacks and Jewish peoples, I am better understanding the history of both groups in their interactions with each other.

 I am better understanding that each group can own its individual and communal histories without lessening the tragedies of the other. Our two groups cannot coalesce maximally without acknowledging our intersecting and diverging histories of American oppression and suppression.

Clearly, the peculiarities and disenfranchisement of Jim Crow—No Negros, No Jews, No Dogs—and the fiasco of Charlottesville last year underscore these historical ties that bind.

This American history for both groups is written in blood, violence, intimidation and human cruelty; in the case of American lynchings made popular through mainstream photographs, body parts souvenirs, post cards and recordings.

 Our event and the documentary will also demonstrate the power of empathy to disrupt “tribal mentalities” that weaken the fight for collective social change.

I am taking this MLK holiday to expand my intellectual, cultural and political horizons. Between this Jan. 15 and next year’s holiday, I want to know more and do more.

I am challenging myself to move beyond my current cultural awareness and knowledge base to understand more, to do more self-education, and to be more empathetic. This commitment feels very MLK-ish.

 I am challenging others to do the same: acknowledge what we don’t know and open our ears, eyes and minds to learn. Politically, socially, locally, nationally, and globally, the myriad events of the day that involve race, gender, class, religion, ability, and sexuality require that I work ferociously and unyieldingly to create the world I want for all striving to experience “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

If you can choose to engage in this service and social justice work conveniently, periodically, or annually, check your privilege.

Dr. King lived and died practicing what he preached. For those committed to doing this social justice work, the individual and collective challenge is to do the same, not just on Jan. 15.

-Dr. Neal Lester of Ahwatukee is the founding director of Arizona State University’s Project Humanities and Foundation Professor of English.

The event is a partnership between ASU Project Humanities, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Jewish Historical Society. It is at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 15, at the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center located at 122 E. Culver St., Phoenix. See Eventbrite for more details.

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