Martin Luther King, Jr. Day


Every January, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In our efforts to teach children to live by his example, we often focus on the biographical details of his life and the tragic circumstances of his death. While these are important, this holiday also brings us the opportunity to celebrate and teach Dr. King’s message. This MLK Day, we can develop the tools to talk about race.

Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In the speech, he called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the United States. The speech includes one of Dr. King’s most famous quotes:  “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” 

This quote has often been interpreted to mean that Dr. King was calling for a “colorblind” society, in which race would no longer be acknowledged. Well-meaning people may even believe that the best way to achieve such a society is to ignore race altogether. But is this what Dr. King meant? Was he saying that we should no longer talk about race?

Race is difficult to talk about. Research shows that white people often don’t discuss race, particularly around people of color,  because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing or of making a mistake. They may believe that “colorblindness”, not talking about race at all, actually brings us closer to equality. 

However, when we don’t talk about race, we actually perpetuate racism. Ignoring our differences doesn’t make them disappear. When we don’t talk about our differences, we don’t have the opportunity to challenge misguided assumptions and stereotypes. We also lose the chance to share and celebrate our positive differences, the things that make us unique.

People often make assumptions about others based on the way people look, sound, or dress. Sometimes differences are visible and sometimes they aren’t. When we learn about difference and talk about race, we develop a skill called “cultural competence”, the ability to relate to others across different races, cultures, and backgrounds. Practicing cultural competence is ongoing, throughout our lives. We will make mistakes along the way, but it’s worth taking that risk.  

Perhaps most importantly, understanding ourselves is key to understanding and talking to others. Acknowledging our own differences helps us to discover what we have in common with others, even when we don’t share all the same passions or concerns. This helps develop a basic understanding of diversity. 

We need to be aware of and discuss questions of race and identity. According to Julius Lester, the African-American Jewish author of “Let’s Talk About Race,” the color of your skin is only one part of who you are. It’s important that we understand our own story, develop the language to discuss it, and appreciate the diversity of others. 

Diversity exists both outside and inside the Jewish community because Jews are diverse. There is no one way to look or be Jewish. Jews are a multicultural people who live around the world and often look like the native people of the country they are from—India, Uganda, Morocco, Mexico, etc. The country by country content of our educational resources, Passport to Peoplehood, helps to better understand Jewish peoplehood.

Be’chol Lashon values each person’s story and their value to the collective, encouraging conversations and celebrating differences between people as an asset. Jewish wisdom that has evolved over millennia around the world has much to contribute to cultural competency—the ability to ask questions and navigate difference—an essential part of Jewish identity.

Big Ideas

  1. Jews are a multicultural people who live around the world. Jews are diverse, with many races, cultures, and nationalities, but are all part of one people.
  2. We are all unique but we share elements of our experience with others. We can often be surprised to learn things about people that challenge our assumptions.
  3. It’s important to learn “cultural competence”, the ability to navigate difference. Certain personal characteristics are easily seen, while others are not visible. We learn more as we get to know each other’s stories.

Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a Baptist minister and the most prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement, a struggle by African Americans for equal rights from the late 1940s to the late 1960s.

Born in Atlanta, GA, he graduated from Morehouse College and received a doctorate in theology from Boston University. He helped to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which culminated in the 1956 Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional. He also served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a key civil rights organization.

In 1964, at age 35, he became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He is the only non-president to have both a national holiday dedicated in his honor and a memorial statue on the Great Mall in Washington, D.C.