The building that we know as Deliverance Evangelistic Center Temple on Clinton Avenue is no stranger to inspiring orators and luminaries of American society. This afternoon the church hosted Cornel West, currently a professor of religion at Princeton University, who delivered an inspiring speech that served mainly to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It touched on several themes, including the absolute need for self-examination, the dangers of indifference to human suffering and the evils of complacency.
To loosely quote West, he began his remarks on King by saying: ‘The first thing we need to do is resist the Santa Claus-ification of Martin Luther King’. He was much more complex than the pious, saintly crusader of justice that he has become in American lore. At one point in his life, King endured an emotional/spiritual crisis of sorts, and had suicidal thoughts. It is no accident that he was followed closely by the FBI for nearly two decades toward the end of his life, because this was a man who was a threat to the status quo in America, said West.
King took a long hard look at himself at one point in his life. It is something that each and every person should do, because — to quote Socrates — the unexamined life is not worth living, said West. This part of West’s speech seemed obvious to me. What rational person would go through life without turning on the search light into their own souls every now and then. But when he began talking about the comeuppance that was due to America owing to its treatment of African slaves and later its native black population, it struck me that we as a country haven’t really dug deep to confront our mixed, conflicted and ambiguous history. I sat there thinking: surely, no society anywhere developed in a perfectly fair and reasonable way, with no conflicts, unfair pecking orders or exploitation. But West drove home a point that I had never thought about before today, and my husband (who is white) listened hard to this: white Americans were rightfully appalled, shocked and frightened after the terrorist attacks in 2001. For the very first time in our history as a country, the dominant culture had to feel the searing heat of hatred solely because of who they were. It stung. Yet, terrorism was carried out on blacks in the Antebellum South and the Jim Crow era. If blacks had responded to this hate with equal viciousness, then the United States would have been plagued with one civil war after another, one for each generation, West said.
So we escaped that fate. It’s not a reason to become complacent or indifferent. We cannot be indifferent to the suffering of people around us. We know that indifference is the one trait that makes the very angels weep, he said. This is the part of West’s speech that left its deepest impression on me.
The event was practically a roll call of New Jersey’s political luminaries. Sen. Robert Menendez addressed the crowd, acknowledging the opportunities that King’s work made possible in his own life. He lamented that more young people somehow end up wasting their potential.
“I’m tired of seeing young people cross prison court yards,” said Menendez. “I want to see more of them them cross graduation stages.”
State Assemblywoman Grace Spencer greeted the crowd, as did Newark Council President Mildred Crump made us all look plain and simple simply by virtue of her hat. (Just give me 10 minutes in her closet!) Tavis Smiley sat quietly in the front row, next to Mayor Cory A. Booker, whose parents were in the row behind him.
I cannot talk about the DEC without mentioning its long and important history both to Newark and the Civil Rights Movement. Originally founded as the Temple B’nai Abraham in 1924, it installed arguably its most famous spiritual leader, Joachim Prinz, Ph.D., in 1939. King and Prinz were friends and co-laborers in the civil rights movement. History will remember Prinz as giving the “I Speak as an American Jew” at the 1963 march on Washington, before King’s electrifying “I Have a Dream.” The DEC temple was added to the National Register of Historic Places in April 2007.
Before we left that building, West imparted something important for all of us to remember about Martin Luther King. At his very heart, he was a Christian preacher.
“Don’t become so wrapped up in the flag that you forget about the cross,” said West. I love this kind of balance in men like West and King. We tend to pigeonhole people, for one reason or another, ignoring the complexities of their lives. The tragedy about this is that it ends up fostering extremist thinking, as far as I can see. It is important that Christians and intellectuals resist the temptation to see intellectualism and social justice, and the Christian faith as somehow incompatible. Remembering “the least of these” is an integral part of the Christian faith.
So, before we clamored around West for autographs and pictures, he passed on this advice from King, who himself was quoting his elders: “If the kingdom of God is within you, then everywhere you go, you ought to leave a little heaven behind.”