The Fierce Urgency of Now

Keeping MLK’s legacy alive in our work for justice today

Today is the one day we set aside each year for the sole purpose of reflecting on the tremendous ethical legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and our moral obligation to “carry it on.” But this year, with so much injustice in a world being battered by a global wave of hate, I cannot help but think about Martin Luther King every day.

When we work as Jews for human rights and justice worldwide, we follow in the footsteps of Dr. King, a world leader who connected the local to the global. When Dr. King preached “let freedom ring,” that call did not end at our borders.

An international thinker, leader and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr. King understood that freedom and equality in this country were inextricably linked to the struggles for global human rights and the fight against war, colonialism and extreme poverty abroad.

As he declared in his Nobel Lecture in 1964: “In one sense, the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation. But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a relatively small part of a world development… a freedom explosion.”

More than half a century later, that “freedom explosion” is endangered, and it is up to us to act.

Hate is fierce. Walls are being built. Genocide is a reality. Authoritarianism is on the march. Yes, we must struggle against the persecution of racial, religious and ethnic minorities. We must oppose the castigation of refugees and end the injustices heaped on the poor everywhere. And we must also take up struggles—like the denial of basic rights and opportunities for women and girls and LGBTQI people—that were not yet on Dr. King’s agenda but are completely consistent with his and our deep belief in the dignity of every person. When Dr. King spoke so movingly about “the fierce urgency of now,” he was speaking powerfully about his time—and prophetically about our own.

Dr. King’s words and deeds inspire and inform AJWS’s work as a global organization. When we support indigenous people in Guatemala, Muslims in Burma and girls and young women in India as they fight peacefully for their own rights, we are answering Dr. King’s call to action.

Having grown up in a progressive Jewish anti-apartheid family in South Africa, I find special meaning in Dr. King’s teachings. Dr. King was profoundly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the nonviolent struggle for independence in India. Gandhi spent time as a young attorney in South Africa fighting for the rights of his fellow Indians who faced oppression in African society, which influenced his lifetime commitment to global human rights across borders and lines of race and class. Returning home, Gandhi won India’s freedom without firing a shot. But, as with Dr. King, he was ruthlessly murdered by an assassin bent on extinguishing peaceful resistance to inequality.

In his own lifetime, Dr. King’s nonviolent movement inspired the world community to breathe new life into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1965, in the midst of marches for civil and voting rights in the U.S., he urged the United Nations to adopt the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination—the first human rights treaty since the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.

For decades after his death, Dr. King influenced world leaders striving for justice, including Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. Sensing similarities between apartheid and American racism, Dr. King declared, “In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States, which has also been so long and arduous, we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa.”

Striving to reconcile South Africa’s black majority and its Indian, mixed-race and white minorities, including its Jews, President Mandela found inspiration in Dr. King’s multiracial movement. When Mandela accepted his own Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he said: “Let the strivings of us all prove Martin Luther King to have been correct when he said that humanity can no longer be bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.”

As we reflect on Dr. King’s living legacy, the “beloved community” that he sought seems far away in a world still fractured by race, region and religion, including tensions between some African Americans and some American Jews. If he were with us now, Dr. King would lead by example in healing our rifts and moving forward together, as in the iconic photo of him marching in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, with leaders from many backgrounds, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

With his genius for appealing to the interconnectedness of all Americans—indeed, all the people on this planet—Dr. King told the American Jewish Congress in 1958: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

Dr. King explained that people solidify their common humanity by serving their fellow human beings. As he said: “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve… You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

This teaching inspires our work at AJWS. In a very real sense, Dr. King’s life and work speak to every word in our name—American, Jewish, World and Service.

Dr. King’s holiday is a time for reflection. Every workday is a time for action. It is up to us to heed his teachings—and match our work with our words.

Robert Bank
Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights in the developing world. Robert has spent his career championing human rights as an attorney, activist and leader. He joined AJWS as Executive Vice President in 2009 and previously served in New York’s municipal government and in the leadership of GMHC—one of the world’s leading organizations combatting HIV/AIDS. Robert has been honored with GMHC’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Partners in Justice Award from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.