As the country celebrates the official opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., we are called to remember the words and deeds of Dr. King and to think about what they meant to each of us. For some he is a savior, for others an inspiration and for others a figure of history. No matter your perspective, he was a great man with an incredible influence on our nation.
I count myself extremely lucky. I got to meet and talk with him. As awards commissioner of my New York high school, I had the opportunity to extend an invitation to Dr. King to accept our school’s annual citizenship award. The principal and faculty adviser suggested that he would be much too busy to accept and that the senior class choose an alternative recipient. But we had faith and on Feb. 26, 1963, just seven months before he made his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, Dr. King arrived at George Washington High School in upper Manhattan to accept our award.
Presenting that award to Dr. King is one of the highlights of my life. I am a first generation American. My parents came to the United States to escape Nazi persecution. My father came from Germany and my mother and her parents from Austria. My father’s parents died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. I learned from my parents at an early age that discrimination of any kind is wrong and that it had to be fought.
My father first made me aware of a poem by Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller. It is called “First They Came for the Jews.” It is a simple poem. “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
My parents taught me that when there is injustice one must speak out and they admired King for his courage and his willingness to speak up to the powers that be.
After college I taught school in Harlem. The second school I taught in was a dilapidated old building on 145th Street off Broadway. The PTA decided they were going to fight to get a new school for their children. I joined the fight, taught my class in a local RKO movie theater after the parents padlocked the school doors, and took the class to demonstrate at City Hall to demand a new school. Lo and behold the parents stood up for the rights of their children and won and a new school was built. After teaching I went to work for Rep. Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.) and joined with her in the fight for women’s rights.
Many years later as a gay man fighting for my own rights I often thought of Dr. King and looked at the picture of myself with him and was reminded again that if one man like Dr. King had the courage to lead a peaceful revolution I could summon the courage to speak out for myself and others.
As we continue the fight for LGBT rights, we come across those who don’t understand how it compares to the fight for civil rights and I remember how both Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, spoke out for the LGBT community. Ayn Rand once said, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” I often want to quote that to people who cloak their bigotry and hatred in religion and claim they are for human rights just not LGBT rights.
But then I remember Dr. King and how he fought a battle against so many, and for so many, and did it with a grace and humbleness that sometimes hid the steel in his spine. He fought with love in his heart and worked for peace. Each of us in our own small way must do no less.