Columns | First Person

Journey to freedom: Reflecting on the King memorial

Rabbi Robert J. Marx, with glasses, is pictured with the Rev. Martin Luther King in the 1960s.

CHICAGO (JTA) — Time affirms what heroism discerns. The dedication of a statue in memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a belated yet significant tribute to a man who did so much to redefine the meaning of our democracy.

Make no mistake about it, there was a civil rights movement in the middle years of the 20th century, but King was the face of the movement, the pulse of it — one might even say the heart of it.

The memorial in Washington, D.C., about to be dedicated to his memory is made of solid stone, of granite. It will remain for the ages, solid and unmoving, a reminder of what dedication and courage are able to achieve.

Yet contemplating the statue, something seems to be missing. King was not one to sit transfixed for the ages. He was always in motion, always on the move. His travels led him on a heroic if ultimately fatal arc — Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, Memphis.

In Selma, Ala., and later in Chicago, I experienced no great moral revelation as I answered King’s invitation to join him, no great sense that destiny was inviting me to play a supporting role. Quite the contrary; the feeling was rather mundane. What was being done had to be done.

I had the privilege of spending several days in Chicago with King, who was there to protest a housing market that remained segregated. King’s presence shattered the illusion that discrimination was a southern disease, not a northern one.

We marched in the heart of the city, down Michigan Avenue. I was walking beside King when a small stone aimed at him hit me on the forehead. It was a glancing, harmless blow, but the scene was picked up by a television camera and broadcast all over the country. Friends in New York called: “Are you all right? Were you hurt?”

“No damage, I am fine,” I answered. And then, in a moment, I started to tremble.

“No, I am hurt — not by the stone but by the hatred, the bitterness, the rage,” I said.

It is the anger behind that stone that remains with me even now, so many years later. How easy it is to deplore hatred — even the political hatreds that still drive us away from our own humanity. Yet how difficult it is to understand the anguish of the poor and powerless. And how impossible it is to contemplate something that has begun to affect both blacks and whites — the steady evisceration of a struggling middle class.

So there he will sit for the ages, the man who for all too brief a span would never let us relax or sit smugly silent. The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial will become a tourist attraction. Facing as it does the Lincoln Memorial, it will serve as a reminder that our country’s moral force remains alive and potent.

King and Lincoln — neither led a simple life. Both were shot down by demented fanatics. Both tell us that the journey to freedom still requires wisdom, dedication and courage.

(Rabbi Robert J. Marx, the founder and a past president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago and Alabama and fought for civil rights in Chicago and beyond.)