Join in on UC San Diego Extension’s annual Spring Arts Spree and attend a free lecture, March 21, 7 p.m., entitled Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Man Behind the Myth, presented by Rabbi Ben Kamin, a nationally-renowned expert on race relations and civil rights. Explore the conflicts and contradictions that plagued this extraordinary man, the guilt and anguish which haunted him even at the moments of his greatest successes, the darkness that oftentimes weighed down the man who shed such an intense light on what it means to be a human being. No matter how much or how little you know about MLK, you owe it to yourself to be there.
- Stan Walens, Program Representative, Humanities & Performing Arts, UC San Diego Extension
Dr. King and Me
by Ben Kamin
For some 44 years, I have carried a memory in my head, an ache, a yearning—to help fulfill, in some small way, the mission of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The intonation of his unique and historic ministry lives in every book I write, every sermon I preach, every time I eulogize, bless, name, or marry someone. All the emotional and doctrinal rivers of my life run into the sea of his plaintive oratory; his anguish for a nation in need of moral outrage, his unbridled disdain for war, and even his profound personal loneliness inform my life as a father, husband, community worker, and certainly as a rabbi.
People ask me, why do you care so much about this Dr. King—you are a Jewish leader after all and shouldn’t you have been inspired by a Talmudic sage or at least another rabbi? And I respond that Martin King was both of these and more. The power and vision of his rhapsodic journey transcend any denominational context even as God cannot be reigned down by any one religion.
The triumph of his painfully short duration as the conscience of this nation, from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968, was that this reluctant “drum major for justice,” this rather small, almond-eyed man who was given to depression and who so feared death, converted the scripture into ethics. And so the morning after his assassination, when I was a 15-year old sophomore at Cincinnati’s racially-charged Woodward High School, I was changed forever. My black classmate and close pal, Clifton Fleetwood, skinny, mischievous, wickedly funny, literally pushed me away from a fiery demonstration by 400 grieving African American students—chastising me that “No, Ben, this is not for you.” But it was, and remains for me; I am inextricably locked into the essence of MLK.
Clifton would find out 36 years later, after I searched for and found him (and the reason he said such a thing), that this rejection led me to a path from which I have never strayed. My account of this quest, set against the background of the churning, frightening, yet redeeming 1960s, and the imprint of King’s life and death became my 2010 book, Nothing Like Sunshine. Having spoken about Dr. King in countless community and academic settings, made deeply personal pilgrimages to his tomb in Atlanta and the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, having written about his legacy in The New York Times and as a regular columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, I was invited to launch this book at the National Civil Rights Museum—Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Next month, I return to the Museum, and its sanctified balcony where Dr. King was felled by a bullet, to launch my newest book, ROOM 306: The National Story of the Lorraine Motel. During these last several years, I have commiserated with so many of King’s closest colleagues and protégés—brave men and women, from Rev. James Lawson, the Gandhian leader of the Memphis garbage men’s strike to Maxine Smith, the indomitable NAACP director, to Clarence B. Jones, King’s personal attorney and drafter of the I Have A Dream preachment to Dorothy Cotton, the director of education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Rev. Samuel “Billy’ Kyles, who was standing next to King at the moment of the assassination. I also value a close association and partnership with Prof. Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute at Stanford University.
These remarkable people and others like have become my friends and teachers. They have allowed me to live a heartbeat away from my spiritual mentor. No, Clifton, this was for me.
Rabbi Benjamin Kamin (D.D., Hebrew Union College), author of Nothing Like Sunshine: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination, is a nationally-known teacher, counselor, and author (7 books and over 250 newspaper articles), and a frequent presence on radio and TV. He serves on several national boards dealing with community affairs and interfaith relations.