What Dr. King and Rabbi Salanter Might Have Said about Lowe’s and Racism

Lowe'sIn commemoration of Martin Luther King Day and in solidarity with the American Muslim community, on Sunday, Jan. 15 JCUA’s Jane Ramsey spoke at an interfaith town hall meeting concerning Lowe’s anti-Muslim actions last month. The town hall meeting took place at the Prayer Center of Orland Park.

See media coverage of the event:  Southtown Star | Enews Park Forest

Watch the full town hall meeting on YouTube (see Jane Ramsey’s speech from 8:00 to 15:45).

Here is Jane Ramsey’s full speech at the event:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born 83 years ago today. Assassinated over 40 years ago, his powerful legacy lives on. Dr. King fought on behalf of and with oppressed communities, not in defiance of American ideals, but in their name. His famous words echo strongly as ever:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King emphasized that though our past, as well as our present, are engulfed by the oppression, racism and discrimination that targets minority communities – as a society, we all face a common future.

Jane Ramsey and other speakers at a panel discussion about Lowe's

Jane Ramsey (from left) Amina Shareef, CAIR-Chicago; Jan Shaulis, Faith United Methodist Church; and Anya Cordell, writerJane Ramsey and other speakers at a panel discussion about Lowe's. (Photo: Enews Park Forest.)

The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs stands strong here today with you, stating loudly and clearly that the outrage felt by Muslims, and by all people of good will, regarding Lowe’s shameful actions reflects our outrage. Lowe’s cowardice in buckling to the right-wing Florida Family Association’s demand that it pull its ads from TLC’s reality show “All-American Muslim” and subsequent justifications by Lowe’s for these acts, are deeply offensive and attack the very core of our democracy.

While acquiescing to the Florida Family Association’s hate-filled pressure, Lowe’s claimed business-centered motivations, asserting that “we have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion.” In the classic form of blaming the victim, Lowe’s called the depiction of an American Muslim family “a lightning rod.”

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King addresses this situation, articulating the danger posed by those who would embrace the values of equality while at the same time demonstrating discomfort or opposition to the very paths and expressions of change. He stated:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the white citizen’s councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

We say today to Lowe’s and to all those who would cower to any and all anti-Muslim pressure: this is the season for change! It is so late, not too early, for all America to be brought into the home of an American Muslim family, or an American Christian family, or an American Jewish family, or an immigrant family, or an African American family. It is not too early. It is so late. It is time!

We are here to insist that material concerns and spiritual concerns cannot be neatly separated. Let me take you for a moment from Dr. King’s Atlanta and our Chicago to 19th century Lithuania, where a bold young Orthodox rabbi called Israel Salantar founded the “Mussar (“ethics”) movement.”

Rabbi Salantar emphasized to his disciples that everyday life of business must be closely tied to Jewish ethics. His famous words, repeated by Jewish scholars since, were: “the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs.”

The spirit of these teachings must be alive today. As a recent example we acted to put these important ideas into practice. In 2008, JCUA called upon Jews everywhere to join with us in the small town of Postville, Iowa, where the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant carried out unfair and unsafe labor practices. We asserted that these practices were unacceptable to us, an affront to the ethical kosher laws and to our Jewish values. In protest, Jews across America stopped purchasing Agriprocessors tainted goods. Instead, they joined newly inspired movements that strengthened the expression of our dietary laws to explicitly include fair labor practices and other social justice and environmental matters.

We expect businesses in our community to participate in our spiritual effort as a community to do good, to be good. Though consumer choice should not be seen as the only way to be an active participant in our democratic life, we should make clear to businesses that they must answer not only to their shareholders, but primarily to their stakeholders. Those of us in our communities who are affected by the practices of corporations have the power to hold them accountable and we are prepared to do so.

As we are taught by a young Lithuanian rabbi who knew the face of oppression in Europe over 150 years ago – we must reclaim the everyday sphere of material matters as a spiritual sphere. Collectively we have the power to do so.

Let us be strong in our will to stand powerfully together against hate and intolerance and be fortified by Dr. King’s concluding words from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

JCUA organized the event in collaboration with Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Law Office of Maaria Mozaffar, the Prayer Center of Orland Park, and the American Islamic Association of Frankfort, Ill.

One Response to What Dr. King and Rabbi Salanter Might Have Said about Lowe’s and Racism

  1. […] have recently seen such corporate irresponsibility in the case of Lowe’s, who gave in to the demands of an Islamophobic group that pressured them to withdraw their […]

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