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Where are all the leaders?

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination—a good time to reflect on leadership and moral courage.

Ten days before he was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. answered questions from the audience at the old Concord Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It was his final public appearance before he arrived in Memphis to deliver the words that seemed to presage his own assassination: “I have been to the mountaintop,” he said, “and though I may not get there with you, we as a people will get to the Promised Land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The Concord was located just down the road from where I live in the “Borscht Belt” of Sullivan County—the place where Jewish comedians from Danny Kaye to Jerry Seinfeld honed their skills and now the site of a shiny new casino. King wasn’t upstate for the slot machines or the jokes of course; he was there to speak about leadership at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly—an annual convention of orthodox Jewish leaders—though he was introduced by the radical Rabbi Dr Abraham Joshua Heschel who was celebrating his sixtieth birthday.

In his opening remarks Heschel spoke about the need for a particular kind of leader in the struggle for justice, freedom and equality:

“Where does moral leadership in America come from today? The politicians are astute, the establishment is proud and the market place is busy. Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel?

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