I came of age in the 1960’s. I was brought up Jewish, in a synagogue whose Rabbi was an enthusiastic supporter of the civil rights movement, travelled to the South on several occasions in solidarity with Rev. Martin Luther King, and asked probing questions about segregation and racism in our home community, Dayton, Ohio. While this dismayed some members of the congregation, it was fine with my mother, and we used to go to “interfaith retreats” where we would spend the weekend mixing it up with people–mostly Christian, many African-American–who were similarly interested in a cross-cultural experience. I joined a local civil rights group, the Dayton Alliance for Racial Equality, and did door-to-door canvassing for them in Dayton’s African-American ghetto, as we freely called it. This was not a neighborhood of towering, run-down tenements. Homes were mostly single-family, mostly small, and often a little threadbare. In those days–the early to mid sixties–somebody was usually home during the day. There was no air conditioning, so I often found myself knocking on a screen door as I looked through it into the family’s living room. I had been brought up comfortably middle-class, but through this exposure I began to understand poverty.
The people I worked with, or, rather, for, were in their 20’s and 30’s, and pretty much all African-American. DARE was a small group, with a half-dozen to a dozen regular members, which, I learned in the course of writing this, did not excuse us from FBI surveillance. We all had a tremendous admiration for Rev. Martin Luther King, whom we humorously but reverentially referred to as “Maximum Leader.” I lost touch with DARE when I graduated from high school and went off to college, and I’ve often wondered if they followed Rev. King’s lead through his final year, marked by his famous speech at Riverside Church in New York, where he took his crusade for civil rights to a whole new dimension, saying:
….the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see than an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.