Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saved their respective nations from descending into the abyss. Though their stories are not the same, they both made critical choices to oppose violence and seek reconciliation. Their work enabled two different societies to embrace change and acknowledge that racism was pervasive and destructive.
This weekend, as we celebrate the life and work of King, we should honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela as well. Both men rose above revenge and, instead, forged a new national identity for America and South Africa. We owe a debt of gratitude to these two heroes who taught us how to see through old prejudices and affirm the potential of people to live together peacefully.
King was the preacher, and his message came out of the Bible. Scripture was the tool he used to reach all Americans. He knew there could not be peace in America without a commitment to justice.
He reminded us that the greatest impediment to peace was not the people who exhibited unbridled hatred against African-Americans, but those who remained silent. He issued a clarion call with the rage of Biblical prophets to restore our nation's promise for African-Americans. That message would eventually give impetus to civil rights for women, gay and lesbian Americans, and other racial groups who yearned to partake in the American dream of opportunity.
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Many of us remember the riots in the 1960s and how violence spread like a prairie fire across our land. King's commitment to nonviolence was critical in changing the tone from demonstrations and riots to engagement and legislative acts. King repeatedly emphasized that the imperative to change could not happen gradually or incrementally -- real change had to occur immediately. In his "I Have a Dream Speech," he preached about the "urgency of now."
At the Lincoln Memorial, King thundered, "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all God's children."
Mandela was a lawyer turned political activist who spent more than 25 years in prison. He, too, rejected violence and stressed a peaceful transition to democracy and black majority rule. He, too, recognized that change had to come quickly.
As president of South Africa, he welcomed black and white citizens into the big tent of the new nation. His emphasis on sports helped restore the pride of all racial groups in their nation's new identity. He kept the peace by preventing a potentially explosive and divisive South Africa from turning into an insurrection.
The time had come for change, and there was no turning back. Speaking to an audience of 50,000 people in 1990 after his release from prison, he proclaimed, "We have waited too long for freedom. We can no longer wait. ... Our march to freedom is irreversible."
Both leaders have passed on, but how enduring their respective legacies will be remains a question. Will their memories inspire the world to find alternative solutions to violence in solving racial conflicts?
Today we need a King and Mandela to rise to help other groups who still choose death over peaceful co-existence.
I am praying for leaders today who will emerge from Sunni and Shiite Islam, Central Africa, and North and South Korea, who will present a peaceful way to eradicate violence.
We need new leaders who will stand upon the moral high ground and condemn the economic and human rights abuses that still abound worldwide. We must stop, for example, the human trafficking of young women and human rights abuses in China. The answers begin through recruiting the gifted leaders of today and tomorrow who will be brave enough to face down the condemnation of their own peoples to achieve peace. The legacies of Mandela and King require a new generation of leaders to say, "Enough violence."
If anything is learned, it is to be on guard when we enshrine great leaders into the national memory. Let us beware not to grow so dependent on their memory that we forget our duty to move forward to finish the work from which these men dedicated their lives.
Each generation has the responsibility to sustain the "urgency of now" when fighting for human rights.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.