What we can learn from MLK and the Civil Rights Movement

26 January 2023

It can be hard to feel hopeful when it comes to Israel these days. For those of us who care deeply about a future of equality, justice, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians, the rise of  Israel’s new hardline government, made up of self-avowed of “proud homophobes”, virulently anti-Palestinian racists, and shamelessly corrupt politicians committed to undermining the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court and dismantling the fundamental checks and balances of its democracy is, to say the least, disheartening. That government is careening towards greater autocracy, discrimination, and inequity, and threatening those of us who dare to speak out. But at the same time, hope, elusive as it may be, is not dead: over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of Israelis, horrified at the assault on Israeli democracy, have poured into the streets in protest, despite threats against them by government leaders. They inspire me. 

But I also find hope in a somewhat more unlikely place. During dark times like these, I reread  the opening pages of one of my favorite books: Parting the Waters, the first volume in Taylor Branch’s epic trilogy about  Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement. Those pages  cover a lesser known chapter in the story of the mighty struggle for civil rights in America: the years leading up to 1963, an era of rising protest of and resistance to Jim Crow by Black Americans and their allies. For those of us who grew up after the civil rights era, the story that is often told is an abridged one: Black Americans suffered discrimination, King and his contemporaries protested, and Jim Crow fell, giving way to equality for all.

The reality is that the movement was strategizing, organizing, protesting, sitting in, getting arrested, and more — most often out of the spotlight and the headlines — for a decade and a half before the government capitulated to their demands. And that’s not to mention the centuries of resistance to slavery, the dashed hopes of Reconstruction, or the almost-one hundred years between the end of the Civil War  and the start of the civil rights era, when Black Americans sought the equality and freedom they had been promised in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.

Moreover, the movement’s biggest victories came at moments when things seemed most dire. In April 1960, white supremacists threw dynamite through the window of a Black lawyer representing students arrested in the Nashville sit-in. Two weeks later, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960 into law, to protect voting rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law less than two weeks after three civil rights activists were murdered in Mississippi. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 came after two consecutive summers of civil unrest.

This nonlinear path towards justice is laid out in Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (MAP), which theorizes that movements often enter a period of perceived failure just before they win a majority of public opinion and turn the tide in their favor. Over the course of a social movement’s lifespan, it will naturally go through cycles of achievements, hopelessness, resistance, and more. 

So when I look at progressive Israeli civil society, fighting with everything they have against a government diametrically opposed to their — and our — core values, I am reminded that  that hope is not lost — and that it never is. We may not secure equality, justice, and democracy for all in Israel  and under Israel’s control tomorrow, or next year, or even once this government’s term is over and a new one comes to power. But eventually, the actions and commitment of Israel’s grassroots activists and regular citizens — the protests in Habima Square, the thousands of parents mobilizing to defend liberal public education, the civil rights lawyers litigating against the ban on waving the Palestinian flag — will culminate in the change our movement has sought for decades. They will bend the arc toward justice. 

It is impossible to know just when that moment will come, the moment when, as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote, “The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up,and hope and history rhyme.”  But I know this: those  moments tend to come when we least expect it. Few predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela and the collapse of apartheid, or  embrace of the right to same sex marriage in the United States until the moment was already upon us. But for decades before each of those victories for human rights and for humanity, tens of thousands worked, often in obscurity, often with no hope of ever seeing the ultimate victory of their cause, to prepare the ground for the moment when change happened. And so we, too,  will continue to notch small victories and suffer defeats and experience failures until that moment arrives for Israelis and Palestinians.

I often say that the work of building toward a better future is a marathon, not a sprint. But really,  it’s a relay race. Martin Luther King, Jr. picked up the baton from a centuries-long line of Black leaders who fought to abolish slavery and race-based discrimination. The night before he was murdered, King told the crowd gathered to hear him speak in Memphis, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I might not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” And after King’s assassination, a new generation of activists and advocates picked up the baton and carried on the work. And that relay race towards justice continues to this day.

In the actual Promised Land, a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian activists — people like Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together)’s Rula Daood and Alon-Lee Green or Youth Against Settlements’ Issa Amro — face down the odds as they take up the baton passed on to them by a previous generation. I think that they are always aware that they very well may not be the ones to finish the work of building a better Israel, a Promised Land for all its inhabitants. But that’s ok. 

In fact, the Jewish tradition speaks to this moment: Pirkei Avot tells us that “You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.” As long as we have life in us, we must continue working towards equality, justice, and democracy for all, comforted by the knowledge that even when we fail, our successors will carry our movement over the finish line.