In a crowded auditorium of the Israeli Embassy yesterday, those who had known Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., like his oldest daughter, Yolanda, Mayor Marion Barry and Ambassador Meir Rosenne, those whose lives King had touched and those who simply had planted a tree in his name, honored the memory of the civil rights activist.
A few made testaments in their own words. Some used more familiar words from the speeches of King. Others paid tribute with music, drawing on both Jewish folklore and black spirituals. And others expressed their appreciation through dance.
Yolanda King choreographed a movement to the themes of her father's "I Have a Dream" speech. As she emulated her father's delivery and added some of her own dramatic punch, a dancer interpreted the flow of "one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed."
And then the young King, who was helping celebrate her father's actual birthday yesterday as well as the whirlwind of events leading up to the observance of the official King holiday on Monday, spoke of her feelings about the national holiday.
"It is always a mixture of profound joy and profound difficulty when I utter those words. It takes me back, it takes me forward, it takes me all around," she said. "It is incredible when you stop and think about it. In fact if we never ever get to see another miracle in the 20th century, all of us saw it when we witnessed President Ronald Reagan sign the Martin Luther King holiday bill . . . that was a modern-day miracle." The audience applauded her acknowledgment of the long struggle since the holiday was first proposed in Congress in 1968.
Rosenne used his own words and King's. "His unique genius was that he preached and taught and led as a black liberator. His identification with Moses, the liberator of the Jewish people, was bred in him, and he reached out to the Jews in kinship -- and Jews understood that and responded to it," he said.
The ambassador also told of the time he appealed to King to speak out on the persecution of Soviet Jews, and he read from a letter King wrote to The New York Times in 1965: " 'The struggle of the Negro people for freedom is inextricably interwoven with the universal struggle of all people to be free from discrimination and oppression.' "
Barry recalled the motivation King gave to student activists in the 1960s to face "water hoses, dogs, jailings, baseball bats and white police officers" in the South. Said Barry, "He gave us the inspiration to continue in spite of the danger . . . He talked to us about the concept of nonviolence, and for some of us that was a new concept."
This is the second year the embassy has sponsored a King commemoration. Like many other speakers, Barry mentioned the connection between the Jewish community in America and Israel and the black American community. "The history of the civil rights movement and this community go back a great deal. In 1964 when we were in Mississippi battling to get blacks registered to vote, some of our strongest allies were members of the Jewish community. There is a great history between those of us who are black in America and those of the Jewish faith. And if you look at our spirituals: 'Go Down Moses, tell Pharaoh, let my people go.' So there is a parallel."
On Monday in Israel a special session of the Knesset will remember the American holiday, a street in Jerusalem will be renamed for King, and there will be a ceremony at the King Memorial Forest in Galilee.
Barry echoed several other speakers by urging everyone to think about the meaning of King's life on the holiday. Isaiah E. Robinson Jr., the vice president of the American-Israel Friendship League, told the audience of 300 people, "We are here today not so much to pay tribute to him but to pick up the baton and lead the march. This holiday should not be for merriment but for deep thought for planning and moving and acting for justice, peace and righteousness in the future."