Professor David Patterson

Professor David Patterson

David Patterson holds the Hillel A. Feinberg Distinguished Chair in Holocaust Studies at the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies, University of Texas at Dallas. He is a commissioner on the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, a Senior Research Fellow and member of the Executive Board of Academic Advisors for the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), and a member of the Executive Board of the Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches.

            Each year, on the third Monday of January, Americans celebrate the life and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is a day of remembrance and observance, of zakhor and shamor, as it is written in the Hebrew Scriptures that he so frequently invoked.  These are very powerful words.  Zakhor is far more than recollection or recall: it is a remembrance that assumes the form of testimony—testimony to what there is to hold dear, why we live and why we die.  And shamor means much more than observance: it means carefully watching over something very precious—a legacy and a witnessing—that has been placed in our care.  Zakhor draws the past into the present; shamor takes the present into the future.  Both are necessary to a living legacy.  Both are necessary to a meaningful life, which is as essential to the soul as bread is to the body.  Now more than ever, we need this remembrance and observance of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  For if his legacy has been lost, then we are lost.

            What, then, is the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.?  A brief consideration of two of his most famous speeches will give us a clue: the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington, DC, on 28 August 1963[1] and the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis on 3 April 1968[2], on the eve of his assassination.

            In the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King draws upon “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” which, he says, underscore the truth that not only are all men but “all God’s children” are created equal.  He expresses his longing for the day when every American can cry out, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”  In an impassioned plea laden with prophetic overtones, he cries out to his audience:

“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.  We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.  We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.  Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force….  [We must not be led] to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.  They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.  We cannot walk alone.”

Freedom and destiny: the two are as tightly bound together as the life of each of us is bound to the life of the other.  This tie that binds is central to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I have a dream,” he cries, “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.”  Dr. King understood that the soul has no color, and that the soul draws its breath in the between-space of human-to-human relation, which is sanctified in the human-to-God relation.  And so he goes on to declare, again in reference to the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah 40:4-5) that belong to his legacy: “I have a dream that one day, every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”  Having spoken the words of the prophet Isaiah, he ends his speech with his own prophecy, his own prayer, saying, “We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”  Our freedom lies in this joining of hands, and this song of thanksgiving.  Here too, we find the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered at the Black Pentecostal Church of God in Christ in Memphis, on the day before he gave the last full measure of devotion, Dr. King makes repeated reference to God’s people, God’s children, and God’s world.  He bears witness to what he believes to be the truth: that without God, we have neither freedom nor destiny, neither humanity nor meaning.  He underscores the nonviolence essential to any affirmation of human sanctity, as he did on nearly every occasion when he spoke.  As his eyes scanned his audience, he said, “What’s beautiful to me is to see all these ministers of the Gospel.”  Yes: Beautiful.  Profound.  Indispensable.  He went on to relate the tale of the Good Samaritan as told by the Jew Jesus, a tale that conveys the truth: that the other is my brother, regardless of color however unlike me, a fundamentally Jewish teaching.  For every human being is, as the Hebrew term denotes, a ben adam, a child of Adam, each of us tied to the other both physically and spiritually.  It is a truth and a teaching—a legacy that we have from Dr. King—that undermines the very notion of race.

In this speech, we have something like the Passion of Martin Luther King, Jr., akin in some ways to the Passion of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).  Just so, Dr. King declares in his last speech, “I just want to do God’s will,” knowing full well what he was saying.  And he adds, “He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  Who among us today, knows that the mountain he refers to is Mount Nebo (where Moses stood and was buried)?  Who among our leaders could even think of invoking the glory of the coming of the Lord?  And if we do not know the name of the mountain, then I fear that Dr. King’s legacy may be lost.  These are not casual references.  There was nothing casual about Martin Luther King, Jr.  They are essential to his teaching and his testimony.  And they are essential to the remembrance and observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Compare the words he spoke and the witness he bore to the words and the witness of the leaders of Black Lives Matter.  The genius of the BLM movement is that it has adopted as its name an assertion that no one can disagree with: with the implication that no one can disagree with the movement without being labeled a moral reprobate.  This is the hallmark of all totalitarian movements, which are invariably antisemitic. 

“We actually do have an ideological frame,” asserts BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors.  “Myself and Alicia [Garza] in particular, we’re trained organizers.  We are trained Marxists.  We are super versed on ideological theories.”[3]  The dialectical materialism that defines Marxism is overtly and necessarily atheist, as well as antisemitic.  “If this country doesn’t give us what we want,” BLM activist Hank Newsome threatens, “then we will burn down this system and replace it.  All right?  And I could be speaking figuratively.  I could be speaking literally.  It’s a matter of interpretation… .  I just want black liberation and black sovereignty, by any means necessary.”[4]  Such an assertion bears the not-so-subtle implication that power is the only reality, and weakness is the only sin: a position that characterizes Newsome’s nihilism.

In his article, “A Farrakhan Supporter Led the LA Black Lives Matter Rally That Became a Pogrom” Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Fellow at the Freedom Center, wrote the following in the aftermath of the rioting in Los Angeles and the vandalizing of synagogues and Jewish businesses that took place on 10 June 2020:


Melina Abdullah, the lead organizer of Black Lives Matter in LA, and a professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State had been very clear about her motive for bringing her hateful campaign to the area. “We’ve been very deliberate in saying that the violence and pain and hurt that’s experienced on a daily basis by black folks at the hands of a repressive system should also be visited upon, to a degree, to those who think that they can just retreat to white affluence,” the BLM-LA co-founder ranted.  Melina Abdullah has a hateful record of appearing at Farrakhan and Nation of Islam events and praising the antisemitic hate group and its leader.  When Facebook decided to remove Farrakhan over his hateful rhetoric toward Jews, the Black Lives Matter LA co-founder came to his defense.[5]


Abdullah’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam is tacit support of other antisemitic and anti-Zionist groups such as the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement; whose stated aim is the dismantling of the Jewish state.[6]  Where are all God’s children here?  Where is the joining hands? 

            Then there is this assertion from the BLM Toronto co-founder Yusra Khogali: “Whiteness is not humanness.  In fact, white skin is sub-human.”  In her Facebook post, she goes on to say, “White ppl are recessive genetic defects.  this is factual… white ppl need white supremacy as a mechanism to protect their survival as a people because all they can do is produce themselves.  black ppl simply through their dominant genes can literally wipe out the white race if we had the power to.”[7]  Once again, power is the operative term—not justice, truth, or goodness, since power determines the meaning of such terms.  Can anyone begin to imagine Yusra Khogali or any other leader of the BLM movement declare to a gathering, “What’s beautiful to me is to see all these ministers of the Gospel”?  Is there anything in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, that is in keeping with this rhetoric, this ideology, this worldview?  Is his, after all, a legacy lost?  If so, how might it be regained?

            Perhaps there can be a teshuvah, a return to Dr. King’s legacy, if and when Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opal Tameti, Hank Newsome, Yusra Khogali, Melina Abdullah, and other BLM leaders do the following:


  • Denounce the BDS movement as antisemitic.
  • Denounce campus organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine for their antisemitic endorsement of terrorist organizations.
  • Denounce all comparisons between the plight of African Americans and the plight of the Palestinians. The historical contexts are totally different.
  • Declare that the Israelis have nothing to do with the “police tactics” used against Black Americans. This is an overtly antisemitic form of the libel that all contagion, medical or spiritual, comes from the Jews.
  • Condemn all assassination of police officers sitting in their squad car or in their homes.
  • Condemn and denounce the vicious antisemitism of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
  • Condemn and disown the antisemitic statements from Linda Sarsour, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and other antisemitic BLM sympathizers.


Of course, none of this will happen, and even to suggest such a thing is radically out of fashion.  But neither is the testimony and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., particularly fashionable in our time.  It is not fashionable to turn to God, to invoke the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels, or to declare the moral bankruptcy of the very notion of race.  The remembrance and observance of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is very much out of fashion.  In many ways, for our contemporary “social justice” movements, there can be nothing more antithetical than the remembrance and observance of the legacy of Dr. King on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  But there is nothing more needful, if we are to preserve the human sanctity to which he was a witness unto his last breath.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream: Full Text March on Washington Speech,” NAACP, 01/21).

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ Address Delivered at Charles Mason Temple,” Stanford: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, (accessed 01/21).

[3] Quoted in Soeren Kern, “Black Live Matter: ‘We Are Trained Marxists’: Part I,” Gatestone Institute, 2 July 2020, (accessed 01/21).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Daniel Greenfield, “A Farrakhan Supporter Led the LA Black Lives Matter Rally That Became a Pogrom,” Frontpage Mag, 19 June 2020, (accessed 01/21).

[6] Dag Hammarskjőld Program, “Omar Barghouti—Strategies for Change,” Vimeo, (accessed 09/20).

[7] Sam Edwards, “BLM-Toronto leader believes white people are sub-human, calls the ‘genetic defects,’” Canadian News, 6 July 2020, (accessed 01/21).