Dr. King in Hollywood

Like many synagogue guest speakers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his address to the members of Temple Israel of Hollywood on Friday, Feb. 26, 1965, with a pitch.

“Rabbi Nussbaum, officers and members of this great congregation, ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned. “I consider you real friends of our struggle. I want to thank you for your support…. This financial support will go a long, long way in helping us to continue in our humble efforts to make the American dream a reality.”

Dr. Martin Luther King
Temple Israel of Hollywood
Part I, 27 min., MP3, 3.1MB
Part II, 14 min., MP3, 1.6MB

I’ve heard the speech three times now (it’s here on this Web page so you can, too), and each time I smile at the notion that there’s no order of business too urgent and no speaker too majestic to forego … the appeal.

To Ruth Nussbaum, the wife of the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who brought King to Los Angeles to speak, the fundraising pitch was perfectly in keeping with an occasion that struck her at the time as eventful, though not immediately historic.

“You must remember, at that time it didn’t have the historical impact we put into it looking back,” she told me by phone.

Nussbaum is 95 now, but her memory of that Shabbat when King came to speak at her husband’s synagogue is keen. (Actually, her memory of everything is keen.) “It was exciting and impressive and symbolic for what we stood for, but history hadn’t happened yet; it was in the making.”

That’s the tricky thing about history: events and decisions that now seem merely interesting or important, in retrospect turn out to be crucial.

Rabbi Nussbaum had long been involved in the civil rights movement and interfaith relations. He invited King to address his congregation, and the reverend accepted.

As Kevin Roderick relayed at laobserved.com, King arrived in town amid heavy security:

“Selma was heating up that month, and Malcolm X had just been killed in New York, so King arrived in Los Angeles under heavy guard. It was his first trip west since winning the Nobel Peace Prize. King … attended a screening of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ at the Cinerama Dome (now the ArcLight). The theater crawled with police because of death threats and the seizure of stolen dynamite connected to a racist group.”

King was 36 years old at the time.

“We invited him to Shabbat dinner at our house — we had all the speakers to our house for Shabbat dinner,” Ruth Nussbaum told me. “But he couldn’t come because of security.”

King did attend a reception at the home of ACLU stalwart Dr. Irving Lichtenstein. The FBI warned Lichtenstein that someone might attempt to assassinate King in the Beverly Hills surgeon’s home, but the doctor refused to cancel the event. According to a Los Angeles Times obituary, Lichtenstein told the FBI they could attend the dinner, but only if they wore tuxedos like other guests.

More than 1,700 people packed the sanctuary on Hollywood Boulevard to hear King.

Midway through the regular Friday evening service, Rabbi Nussbaum rose to introduce him as “the man who has changed the moral climate of America, to a point by which our country and our nation will never be the same again.” He has “given the history of our generation a forward thrust, a sense of direction, an encounter with destiny.”

If you listen to King’s oration — and you owe yourself a quiet 45 minutes to do so — you’ll hear something unusual: It’s not just about racism. In fact, he barely mentions the words “segregation” or “Negro.”

The tropes of the March on Washington speech, which King had delivered two years earlier, are all there, the references to the mountaintop, to the Promised Land, to the prophetic call for justice to “roll down like a mighty stream.”

But as much as the speech was about racial equality, it was also about the struggle to end poverty and to end war. We think of King as a black leader, but through his words, spoken here in Los Angeles, it is clear that his ultimate concern was the fate of the individual human soul, and of humankind — an encounter with our destiny.

“We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture,” King preached. “We have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology…. We’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but we failed through moral commitment to make of it a brotherhood… What does it profit a man to gain the whole world of means — airplanes, television, electric lights — and lose the end, the soul?”

Because it was customary at that time not to applaud in a sanctuary, King’s rousing, passionate oration was met with utter silence. Then, he departed. He didn’t stay for the end of services, Ruth Nussbaum recalled. It was, perhaps, just one more stump speech on King’s long, wearing road. Hearing his words now, however, on a pristine recording, dusted off and made public for the first time after so many years, the speech seems eerily prescient.

Three years later an assassin would make good on all those threats, and a speech that at the time seemed like yet another step in the campaign for civil rights would become a rare, historic document of a visit from a still-living martyr. None of us knows for sure which weeks are portentous, and which are merely important.

Frankly, this week, with Congress and the president poised to decide whether or not to escalate the war in Iraq, feels like it may be one of those weeks.

Were King still here to take the pulpit of Temple Israel this week, the week that contains a day in his honor, what would he say?

What moral leadership would he provide to question, to counter, this deeper descent into the quagmire, this further misuse of noble lives? How would our president and our Democratic leaders fare confronted by a man of such practical and moral clarity?

“We’ve ended up with guided missiles and misguided men,” Dr. King told the Shabbat worshippers and guests at Temple Israel.

And without Dr. King around to guide us, who will?