In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., An Interview with My Father

We all have dreams. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was of a just and equal society in which all individuals were respected for their contributions and where all citizens have equal basic rights and opportunities.

Today, an area in which we continue to experience vast inequality is in health care. This is true when you consider a global perspective, but also when you look at the United States alone.  When it comes to infant mortality rates, which are commonly used to indicate a nation’s health status, the U.S. has a rate that continues to be higher than the OECD average. If you do a simple Google search on “health disparities in the U.S.,” statistics from the CDC, AHRQ and other agencies indicate that unacceptable disparities across gender, geographic, racial and socioeconomic lines continue to exist in our country.

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that all citizens have access to the right care, at the right time and in a setting close to home. At UMHS, we are working to find solutions to prioritize work on health care disparities in a variety of ways but, most demonstrably, through the newly created UMHS Office of Health Equity and Inclusion. In the coming weeks, we will announce the new Director of this Office.

Today, in honor of Dr. King’s life and dreams, I asked Allison Krieger to interview my father, Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, about a period in his life when he worked with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. His memories and lessons continue to remind me personally that if you doubt what we can do for the future, you need only look at some of the great lessons from our past.

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In honor of his efforts on behalf of the legislation, President Lyndon B. Johnson presents Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch with a pen he used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1966. (Photo courtesy of From The Hill To The Mount)

How did you meet Dr. King?
In 1962, I was selected as the Founding Director of an exciting new institution in Washington called the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.  The RAC was founded to represent Jewish social concerns and bring to bear the social justice message of Judaism on the major issues confronting society.  We testified before Senate and Congressional committees on issues of social concern, convened conferences, established training programs for clergy and lay leaders, issued publications and activated members of congregations to participate in the political process.  Wherever possible we participated with Protestant and Catholic groups, civil liberties and civil rights organizations, and a host of like-minded organizations.

Martin Luther King and I had a mutual friend who suggested that, because we shared common interests and goals, we should meet.  So, shortly after I arrived in Washington, Dr. King visited me and we immediately struck up a friendship. Within the first few minutes of meeting him, I recognized his passionate commitment to social justice, his love of the biblical message and his intellectual brilliance. 

Dr. King used your office when he would go to Washington, D.C., correct?
Yes. When I discovered that he made frequent trips to Washington, but did not have an office, I told him that he would always have one at the RAC and he graciously accepted my invitation. An additional incentive for him was the fact that the offices of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights were located in our Center.  The Leadership Conference on Civil rights was an umbrella group which included the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Protestant and Catholic groups, and a host of labor groups, women’s groups and other organizations advocating full rights for minority groups, with special emphasis on rights for African Americans. 

Is it accurate that much of the Civil Rights legislation in place today was drafted in your offices?
Yes. In fact, the RAC’s conference room was where critical meetings were held and where public civic groups debated the complex issues of the civil rights legislation. Today, that venue is considered an historic landmark.

How did you and your organization become involved in the 1963 March on Washington?
When Martin Luther King first proposed the March even liberal backers feared that it would lead to violence, and that the interruption of the normal Washington routine would be counterproductive.  We – the RAC and I personally – disagreed. Though I initially underestimated the potential significance of the event, I knew that it would be important and productive.  So, RAC staff and I became active in every aspect of the planning and implementation of the event.  And contrary to some of the nay-sayers, I insisted that it would be peaceful – so much so that we brought Ora, not yet seven years old, with us.  It is a day she has never forgotten.  For our country and for the world it is a day enshrined in history. It reinforced and became a symbol for the struggle for human rights for all human beings and for all eras

You personally played a significant role in the 1965 Selma, Alabama demonstration, too. Tell me about that.
Yes. I received a call from a friend in the Washington Council of Churches and he told me that Dr. King had issued a call to clergy of all faiths to join him in Selma to demonstrate their support for voters’ rights. They already had 13 Protestant clergymen and one Catholic priest. They wanted me to represent the Jewish clergy. It was considered extremely dangerous – several people had already been killed. I called Bella at home, explained the situation and asked if she would agree to let me go. Of course, she responded as she always has, that I had to do my duty and she encouraged me to go.

When I arrived in Selma, my fellow travelers and I were immediately taken to the church where the demonstration was being held. Thousands of people were gathered outside, and the church itself was packed to the rafters. We were lead to the pulpit where Dr. King was addressing the crowd. When he finished, he came up to me and said “Dick, you’re next.” I was totally unprepared!

For the next 30 minutes, I offered three thoughts – the words of the Midrash. First, I said that Jewish tradition teaches us that when God created man, he created only one man. Why? So that no man would ever be able to say my father is better than your father.

Next, I shared my second thought that according to Jewish tradition, God created man using dust from the four corners of the earth. Why? So that no person would ever be able to say the place from which I come is better than the place from which you come.

Then, I delivered my third and final thought, that when God created man, he used every color of dust. Why? So that no man would ever be able to say the color of my skin is better than the color of your skin.

Thunderous applause lasted for several minutes. Never in my life have I experienced such exaltation and gratification from an audience.

In your book From the Hill to the Mount, you shared your observation that when it comes to civic controversies “No individual and no organization is omniscient and no one has a monopoly on the solution.”  Do you think that we, as a nation, have become more adept at dealing with major civic issues?
I consider it to be a great privilege to have engaged in many major public controversies. What did I learn? Human society is not like the human body. When it comes to the body, you can discover cures for diseases through research and discovery.  But, when it comes to the ills of society, there are no quick cures, no panaceas.  There are no experts who have all the answers and who project sure-fire solutions to poverty, injustice, discrimination, inequity and a host of other afflictions confronting every society.

What we desperately require are leaders who are passionate advocates for social justice, but who understand that in a democracy the active participation of a majority is essential for social progress.  To achieve a majority requires a willingness to consider the validity of divergent views, and to seek compromise.  To the extent that I was involved in the deliberations resulting in the civil rights legislation of the 1960′s, I was involved in compromise.  Martin Luther King himself was a great compromiser.  But he never lost sight of the ultimate goal.  He knew that future generations would continue the struggle, even as his efforts were grounded in the struggles of previous generations.  Without the generation of Martin Luther King, would we have the generation of President Barack Obama?

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Three days later, on April 7. 1968, my family attended a memorial service in his honor convened by the Washington, D.C.-area Jewish community and attended by more than 2,000 people. Because of their relationship, my father, was asked to deliver the eulogy. Below is an excerpt from that speech. Though my specific memories of that day have suffered the toll of time, the feelings remain with me as if it were 45 days ago instead of 45 years.  And those feelings are sadness and loss, but also hope and promise.

“[Dr. King] made us look at ourselves in the light of eternity. He made us stand firm on our foundations. He showed us the gap between America’s promise and America’s fulfillment. He would not let us forget that there were human beings who were being treated less than human. From bus to waiting room to lunchroom to hotel room to voting booth to slum house to ghetto school to university campus to employment offices, he confronted us with the America we had refused to believe existed.

He shattered our illusions, but he restored our dream – the American dream. He helped us to see that our fundamental goal was not to make the world safe for democracy, but rather to make democracy safe for the world. And in doing so, he became our conscience. His pulpit was the street, his congregation all mankind, and his message universal.

And that is why he was struck down. The forces of hatred always seek to destroy our noblest symbols. But they seek in vain. . . . The assassins never learn that the symbol is more than a man’s body. It is a man’s life, his work, his deeds, his values. The destruction of the body only serves to enhance the value of the spirit. The wanton taking of life only generates new life for the forces of good. The symbol in death becomes more than the symbol in life. It assumes a new life, a new mission of its own. Freed from the frailties of the human body, it soars to new heights of influence.”

Giving Back & Giving Thanks

Standing in line to vote last week, I felt a great deal of pride in being an American – of living in a country where I have the right to vote and where I have a voice in how the country, our state and our University are run. This is a precious privilege, as well as an important responsibility that doesn’t end when election results are in.

Being an American means feeling a responsibility not only for oneself, but for all other Americans and for those in need around the world. This is rooted in compassion, which is one of my 7Cs and one of the values that defines our University of Michigan Health System community.

Many of you have told me that you like my 7Cs, so with election week behind us and Thanksgiving on the horizon, I want to talk about the C of Compassion and the importance of giving back.

Compassion is the idea that you can put yourself in another person’s shoes and feel empathy. It’s so important to remember that we are not alone in this world and that there are others who experience pain and suffering – many who have it worse than we do. Right now, there are individuals, families and entire communities who are facing long-term recovery in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. People who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina are still struggling to put their lives back together. Just this month, U-M Wallenberg Medal honoree Dr. Denis Mukwege was almost murdered because of his heroic work treating survivors of sexual violence in the Congo. He was subsequently forced to flee his home and the country where he has helped tens of thousands of women and children.

By nature, the work we do at UMHS requires compassion. I have yet to meet one person working in health care who wasn’t drawn to the field because of a fundamental desire to help people. Another thing that I’ve noticed about the UMHS community is that so many of you go above and beyond your work roles to help and serve others as volunteers within UMHS and in the broader community and the world.

For example, last month, more than 30 UMHS physician assistants helped renovate the future home of a fellow U-M employee and raised $4,000 for Habitat for Humanity. This was the fourth year that the group volunteered with Habitat.

Then there is the group of U-M medical students and faculty physicians who donate their time and skills to run a free clinic for uninsured residents of rural Livingston County every Saturday from 1:30 – 5 p.m.

I also hear many stories similar to that of Jennifer Schwab, R.N. Jennifer is a clinical care coordinator and certified diabetes educator in pediatric endocrinology who has used her personal time off time to volunteer as a cabin clinician at Camp Midicha, an American Diabetes Association summer camp in Fenton, MI, for five of the last six years.

The faculty, staff and students of UMHS are lending their hearts, hands and minds across Michigan, across the country and across the globe – all in the name of compassion and service to others.

Volunteering is one of the most rewarding ways to give. Several years ago in December, my family and I spent a week in Guatemala helping to build schools with a group from our synagogue in Indianapolis. We also brought food, decorations and other items with us to create a memorable Christmas celebration for impoverished families. It was an amazing experience to share as a family, and it reinforced in each of us the importance of volunteer work.

Currently, there are more than 1,800 active volunteers who help create a culture of compassion and service in our Health System. From the Motley Crew, a group of U-M student volunteers who provide monthly entertainment for children at Mott, to employees of the Oliver/Hatcher Construction company who volunteer every Thursday at our Skyline Café, to the specially-trained four-legged friends and their human companions who bring the Therapaws program to UMHHC, to employees who volunteer at UMHS in roles other than their day jobs, we are incredibly fortunate to be part of – and to benefit from – such a generous community.

All of these are wonderful examples of people doing amazing things for others. I know that there are many more examples out there in our UMHS community and I want to hear about them.   Today through Thanksgiving, I invite you to share your volunteer story and experience – your personal  “Story of Giving” -  in the comments section below. In doing so, you can inspire others and generate awareness of the countless ways we can give.

I want to wish you and your families a wonderful Thanksgiving. We have much to be thankful for.